Who was the greatest British Liberal?

Readers of Lib Dem News will have had their attention drawn by Lord Tom McNally to a poll asking: who is the Greatest British Liberal?

(The question is being posed by The Journal of Liberal History, and voting is open only to members – you can join here.)

Here’s the short-list of 15 drawn up by the Liberal History Group’s executive committee:

Asquith, Herbert Henry
Beveridge, William
Bonham Carter, Violet
Campbell-Bannerman, Henry
Cobden, Richard
Fawcett, Millicent Garrett
Fox, Charles James
Gladstone, William Ewart
Grimond, Jo
Jenkins, Roy
Keynes, John Maynard
Locke, John
Lloyd George, David
Mill, John Stuart
Russell, John

(You had to be dead to qualify.)

The New Statesman has an interesting feature on its blog here, written by York Membery, noting that only two women make the short-list, and expressing surprise at the omission of Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, WE Forster, T Hobhouse and Joseph Rowntree.

Though, unlike York, I don’t doubt the rationale of including Roy Jenkins – oh, for the days of a liberal home secretary, regardless of party label.

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  • No Adam Smith? :-/

  • Jeremy Sanders 26th Jul '07 - 5:28pm

    I can’t see why the New Statesman is suggesting Charles Dickens. However great a writer he was, the basic political philosophy underlying most of his books is a sort of paternalistic Toryism. Ultimately, the message of most of his books is not that there should any fundamental change to society, but that the rich and powerful should act more virtuously. For anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend reading George Orwell’s essay on him.

    Equally, I fail to see the argument for Winston Churchill. Being a great man, and spending some years as a Liberal MP, is not the same as being a great Liberal.

    I do agree with NN and Jock on Adam Smith and Thomas Paine though.

  • rochdale cowboy 26th Jul '07 - 7:17pm

    Without a doubt Cyril Smith was the biggest Liberal

  • Cyril Smith is in favour of hanging and flogging people, but he does have liberal views on other matters. So his credentials are best described as “mixed”.

    Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George should be excluded for the simple reason that they led Britain into the unnecessary and disastrous bloodbath of the First World War.

    John Locke argued that land should be owned by the people who live on it and/or work it. Locke’s ideas were applied in Ireland in the 1870s, but still today much or rural Britain is in the hands of aristocratic landlords. We have only really had land reform in urban Britain. So Locke speaks to the modern condition. Perhaps we can call Locke the “primaeval Liberal”.

    Beveridge and Keynes, though members of the Liberal Party, were really social democrats of the Attlee/Wilson/Callaghan school.

    Roy Jenkins is perhaps the classic modern social liberal. He presided over the abolition of the death penalty and homosexual law reform, while promoting international cooperation and opposing narrow nationalism.

    My vote would go to Thomas Paine, who stood up to tyrrany pretty much as a one-man band and advocated free speech, gender equality and secularism (was he in favour of extending the franchise – I forget?).

  • H. H. Asquith and David Lloyd George are also the main responsibles for the division of Liberal Party, and thus also for about 90 years of opposition.

    I would also prefer, that the greatest liberal would rather be some liberal thinker, like John Locke, Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill than some politician, who probably has been more compromised in his liberalism.

  • Geoffrey Payne 26th Jul '07 - 7:57pm

    My vote went to Keynes, Beverage second.
    If he had been born 20 years earlier, he might have saved the Liberal Party from losing out to the Labour party, which caused a fatal division on the left in British politics and under our electoral system made the 20th Century a Conservative century.
    Even so his economic theories rescued the UK from the laissez faire economics of the 1930s that led to the great depression to full employment in the late 1940s, 50s and 60s, AND created a more equal society to go with it.
    He did more for the working class than any Marxist ever managed. Yet how many working class people have ever heard of him?
    And he was a member of the Liberal party despite what anyone else might say.

  • Geoffrey Payne, the interventionist politics, which also Keynes advocated, caused the Great Depression. Read it here: http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=4013

  • Hywel Morgan 26th Jul '07 - 10:59pm

    In the absence of John Cooke I’d have to go for Roy because of the steps he took increasing freedom of expression.

    Though it is slightly unfair to put the founder of liberalism as a coherent creed on the list!

  • Leo Watkins, the same can be said about several thinker before and after Mill, depending on what you think was cohesive liberal philosophy. And Mill owes much to the less known German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, who he mentions several time in “On Liberty”. And in his later days Mill expressed doubts about liberalism.

    But it remains, that Locke created the philosophical foundations of liberalism.

    Tom Papworth, Milton Friedman was a great liberal, but they are searching for the greatest British liberal, and he was American. But Friedrich Hayek lived and worked for some time in Britain. Then, why not K. R. von Popper or Isaiah Berlin?

  • Sorry, I meant Friedrich Hayek and K. R. Popper. Time to go to bed…

  • Bernard Salmon 27th Jul '07 - 9:28am

    Ann, John Stuart Mill was a politician as well as a thinker – he had a spell as MP for, I think, Westminster.
    I’m another who would like to see Tom Paine in there, especially given some of the odd names which have been included – Campbell Bannerman, John Russell and Violet Bonham Carter? I don’t think so. I’d have rather seen another Russell in there – Conrad.
    Of the names which are on the list, I think it has to be Mill, closely followed by Keynes and Lloyd George.

  • I’m pretty much with Ian, and am actually surprised that the others are even in contention; yes, a very nice list, and including Locke is a nice touch, but ultimately there is Mill, and then there are the rest, and Mill beats all.

    But then, us liberal socialists have always had a bit of a soft spot for the man…

  • Ed, Mill is better known as thinker as politician. Everybody (well, at least every liberal, I assume) knows “On Liberty”, but hardly anybody knows what he did as an MP.

  • God, I know little about Liberal history. What would be a good book for me to read? And should I buy it (a) from a local independent bookshop, or (b) using the Amazon button on the LibDem website – this ensuring the party gets a cut?

  • Stuart: take a look at http://www.libdems.org.uk/party/history.html – and yes please, do use the party’s Amazon deal.

  • Neil Fawcett 27th Jul '07 - 3:55pm

    Vote Fawcett!

    Oh, no, wrong one.

    Locke for me then.

  • David Morton 27th Jul '07 - 7:47pm

    OT but reading this really made me think about resurrecting the debate about just being called the “Liberal Party” again. Liberal is such a beatiful word.

    The other OT thought that came to me was ” what on earth would this lot have thought if you showed them a Focus leaflet?”

    Personally I think the short list should be Gladtone, Asquith, Keynes and Mill. A nice balance of politicans and thinkers and time period. I’d also be tempted by Lloyd George just for entertainment value. In terms of ommisions I though Archibald Sinclair might have sneaked in for keeping the guttering flame alive and if the 1832 Reform Act doesn’t get Earl Grey on the list then what does?

  • Barry Stocker, I have the understanding that those Austrian economists you refer to in your point 10. aren’t actually followers of Hayek and Mises, who were perhaps the best known representatives of the Austrian school, but of the less known Murray Rothbard, an anarcho-capitalist. Rothbard was himself a student of Mises, but unlike Rothbard, Mises never embrased anarchist views.

  • BTW, I assume the greatest British Liberal is elected with STV system? 😉

  • P.S. Barry Stocker on point 9:

    Of course if we are searching for the greatest British Liberal, he doesn’t have to be a philosopher. A historian, like Isaiah Berlin, or let’s say Lord Acton, would do fine. And also many economists and politicians have been suggested.

    Personally I disagree that Popper wouldn’t be actual anymore, or that he would have been replaced by Rawls. But actually I mentioned Hayek, Popper and Berlin only as possible great liberals who have immigrated to Britain. Milton Friedman would hardly qualify, as he never lived in Britain.

  • Terry (at 31) has a point. We wouldn’t be good LibDems, would we, if we didn’t ask what the electoral system will be? I do sure hope it’s not FPTP.

  • I’m sure, Barry, with regard to your earlier point 10. that you are familiar with “Locke’s Proviso” which is the philosophical basis for all Land Value Taxers from what I can see.

    The idea that you create ownership in real property by binding your labour to it has to be tempered by the fact that everyone else in your society has to have some too. So the encloser of land has to leave “as much and as good” available for everyone else. Land value/rent is the monetary indicator of the breach of Locke’s Proviso and so taxing that Land Value is compesnsating the rest of the community for not having “as much and as good” to go round.

    So far as I am aware every LVT theory goes back to this – because it is the beginnings of a theory of rent, so whether Locke himself would have understood or promoted LVT is not the point, but LVT is the logical extension of his ideas about land ownership/enclosure.

  • Barry Stocker, I didn’t think you meant that Rawls alone replaced Popper. But my point was, that Popper isn’t replaced, he’s still relevant. It might be true, that he is in large part neglected in philosophy departments of universities, but then again, we are discussing here who was the greatest British Liberal, and that doesn’t necessarily need to be somebody who is taught in the philosophy departments of the universities.

    I think that the concept of the open society which Popper developed (though didn’t create, that was up to Henri Bergson) is still timely. The ideas of Popper are still having an impact on several liberal parties in the world. The open society is even somehow part of the name of at least two of them. The Flemish VLD renamed itself “Open VLD” in reference to open society, and a minor party in Czech Republic is called “Party for the Open Society”. But in even more liberal parties have traces of Popper’s ideas in their programs. Soros… well, I didn’t even think about him, but of course he’s having some kind of impact in certain universities of some Eastern and Central European countries.

    As for I. Berlin, Liberal International used to have a yearly lecture named after him, I’m not sure if they still have, but it means, that he still is highly regarded in the world organisation of liberal parties.

  • i like robert nozick even though he aint British.

    power to the people yeahh -maan


  • No Hobhouse? Shame.

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