Some thought-provoking reminders of our liberal history

Alex Wilcock and I penned this list of six things* to remember for Liberal Democrat News, the party’s weekly newspaper:

Paddy Ashdown once admitted to under-estimating the importance of a party’s history: “A political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies… It also has a heart and a history and a soul”.

Yet there is no “history of the party” training session for the keen Conference representative nor history briefings for new members. So here are six snippets from the party’s history to entertain, elucidate and illustrate our heart and soul in ways that should still strike a note today.

1. Impressive firsts:

The first Jewish Member of Parliament was Liberal Lionel de Rothschild, elected in 1847 but not able to take his seat until 1858. The first atheist MP was Liberal Charles Bradlaugh, elected in 1880 and finally able to take his seat in 1886. Both fought in Parliament and in multiple elections in order to establish their rights.

The first Asian MP was Liberal Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892. The first female Liberal MP was Margaret Wintringham in 1921, when she succeeded her deceased husband in a by-election. The first female Liberal MP without such a family route to Parliament was Vera Woodhouse in 1923. The first out gay Liberal Democrat MP was Stephen Williams in 2005.

2. Left/right confusion:

Wanting to make deals with Labour isn’t historically associated with being left-wing. It used to be people seen as being on the party’s Liberal Party’s right (such as Richard Holme) who were keenest on deals with Labour. Conversely, being pro-market forces has not historically been associated with being pro-Conservative. During his time as Leader, Paddy Ashdown both pushed for a much more hard-edged free market attitude and also saw the Liberal Democrats as being part of a common centre-left political mission with Labour.

3. Disputes we’d rather forget:

The longest and most bitter row after the Liberal Party and the SDP merged to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988 was not over philosophy, policy or even personalities – simply over the word “Liberal” (with no distinction between social and economic). For a while, the new party was named the Social and Liberal Democrats; a mouthful, this was officially shortened to “the Democrats”. Most of the party rebelled and insisted on “Liberal Democrats”. It took several years, an all-member referendum and a constitutional amendment before the name simply became “Liberal Democrats”. Then everyone could get on with shortening it to “Lib Dems”…

4. Heroics we are happy to remember:

In 1989, with the new-ish party badly split, a very distant fourth in the European Elections and described by Leader Paddy Ashdown as within the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls, the most unifying issue the party became known for was a liberal policy on immigration. With Hong Kong about to return to Chinese rule, the Lib Dems were united in saying that Hong Kong residents were entitled to British passports. In contrast, the Conservative Government said only the richest could buy their way in; the Labour Party voted with rebels on the Conservative far right to keep every single one out.

5. Policies that have gone from eccentric to conventional wisdom:

In 1992, the three issues Jeremy Paxman threw against Paddy Ashdown in interviews repeatedly as proof that the Liberal Democrats were extreme and out of touch were Hong Kong passports, green taxes and (what were then called) gay rights. One issue passed; the others are now the mainstream.

6. Avoiding a coalition didn’t work last time:

The Liberal Party for a short time kept the Labour Party in office in the late 1970s after it lost its majority in the House of Commons. The so-called Lib/Lab Pact was seen by most in the party as at best a missed opportunity and at worst a failure as it did not contain a list of significant policy promises. PR for the European Parliament was lost as the deal only promised a free vote, not the support of Labour MPs.

Alex Wilcock writes the blog Love and Liberty and is a former Parliamentary candidate and Federal Policy Committee member. Dr Mark Pack is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and one of the contributors to the new history of the party, Peace, Reform and Liberation (Biteback Publishing 2011).

* Yes, the Liberal Democrat tradition is lists of three things to remember. But there are two of us, ok?

* Mark Pack is Party President and is the editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Richard Dean 28th Mar '12 - 10:30am

    A somewhat leopardskin history. Let’s hope the party has a future too!

  • Bill le Breton 28th Mar '12 - 10:58am

    On a recent visit to Glasgow, I visited the People’s Palace and Winter Garden, a large building with magnificent palm house built on the edge of the city’s Common. It is now a civic museum and popular venue.

    Inside, the foundation stone commemorated the building’s opening in 1898 by the then Liberal Prime Minister, Arthur Rosebery. He declared the building ‘open to the people for ever and ever’. Powerful words.

  • Keith Browning 28th Mar '12 - 12:33pm

    Social liberalism of the late Victorian age was about freeing the people from poverty by giving them access to education. The People’s Palace in the East End was built by the people and used as a focus for education and entertainment. The social housing didn’t always have great sanitation but the apartment blocks each had a room that was to be used as a library, and books and newspapers were provided by the housing association that owned the building .

    This was an area that Jack London described as one of the most squalid places in the world in a country that claimed to be the most civilised. Despite the atrocious working conditions and the long hours the people still found time to go to evening classes to better themselves. Self-help groups of all descriptions existed and all run on a voluntary basis.

    Some of this got lost in the slaughter of the First World War, but many of industrial developments of the 20s and 30s
    were made by people who were educated in these evening classes and crossed the social divide into a new middle class of skilled men and women.

    It is a pity we dont see the same attitudes to life that were prevalent in social liberalism of only a century ago.

  • David Evans 28th Mar '12 - 5:14pm

    I think 6 “Avoiding a coalition didn’t work last time” is a bit partisan. The public at the time regarded us as propping up an unpopular larger party, at a time of severe economic problems, going back on our principles and not achieving anything (e.g. nothing on electoral reform). Sounds a bit familiar?

    However, several years later, it did lead to some Labour party members to put their heads above the parapet and work with us after they set up the SDP.

  • Bald Reynard 28th Mar '12 - 6:14pm

    That’s great – thanks to Mark we now know (a bit more) about our “Liberal history” – how about someone reminding us of our Social Democratic history !? It might not be as long (unless you take it back further than the ‘Gang of 4’ – and there is some justification for this), but it is significant. I for one, like to constantly remind people, that the Liberal Democrats ARE an amalgamation of two Political parties – and not just Liberals !

  • Keith Browning 28th Mar '12 - 10:02pm

    @Bald Reynard
    Go back to the period 1880-1930 and the history of both arms of the LibDems is the same.
    Not sure labelling with a party name is particularly useful if you are looking at the history of ideology. The people I spoke about above formed a movement which changed its name from Liberal to Socialist to Labour and then some went back to Liberal whilst others then joined the Communist Party. In the main their views and beliefs didn’t change but the way these various parties were run did. People tend to be consistent but parties change and become opportunistic to try to grab as many votes as possible.

  • Malcolm Baines 28th Mar '12 - 10:46pm

    It’s also worth remembering that the party has gone from hero to zero (almost!) and at least part of the way back again in the last 100 years. The 1906 election was a triumph with the party winning 39 7 seats and the Tory leader (and former PM) Arthur Balfour losing his seat in Manchester East. Yet within 10 years the party had split between the followers of Lloyd George and Asquith and by 1929 was down to 58 seats.

    At its lowest the party had only 5 MPs between losing the Carmarthen by-election in 1957 and winning Torrington the following year.

    Forty years later, the Liberal Democrats were up to 46 MPs on the coat tails of the Blair landslide and are now at 57 MPs, almost exactly the same in both seats and vote share (23%) as in 1929.

  • andrew purches 29th Mar '12 - 8:55am

    There is no mention of one particularly salutary element in the Liberal past that should be taken on board, and that is the destructive association with the Tory Party in the thirties, that,if I remember correctly, manifested itself as the “National Liberal and Conservative” Party,which still exists in some form, I believe. This destroyed any semblance of independence for the Party,leading to electoral collapse post war, and I am very afraid that that disaster is being repeated. Sir Anthony Fell, M.P. for Great Yarmouth during the fourties and fifties,was probably the last of the LibCon M.P’s, and a Liberal he most certainly was not.

  • Gareth Jones 29th Mar '12 - 3:31pm
  • Gareth Jones 29th Mar '12 - 3:37pm

    And to balance out the first link:

  • Andrew Purches – the big lessons of the National Liberal debacle are twofold:

    1) The dangers posed by “take my bat and ball away” splitters who fail to accept the majority view of the Party, and
    2) The dangers of straying from the accepted tennets of economic Liberalism

    (From the link kindly provided by Gareth Jones).

  • Nick (not Clegg) 31st Mar '12 - 11:55am

    “…splitters who fail to accept the majority view of the Party,”

    Perhaps that sort of attitude goes some way to explaining why some liberals no longer feel at home within the party called “The Liberal Democrats”.

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