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Liberal Party

Liberal Party, in Great Britain, the name given to and accepted by the successors of the old Whig party, representing the political party opposed to Toryism or Conservatism, and claiming to be the originators and champions of political reform and progressive legislation. The term came into general use definitely as the name of one of the two great parties in the state when Mr Gladstone became its leader, but before this it had already become current coin, as a political appellation, through a natural association with the use of such phrases as "liberal ideas," in the sense of "favorable to change," or "in support of political freedom and democracy." In this respect it was the outcome of the French Revolution, and in the early years of the 19th century the term was used in a French form; thus Southey in 1816 wrote about the "British Liberales".

But the Reform Act and the work of Bentham and Mill resulted in the crystallization of the term. In Leigh Hunt's autobiography (1850) we read of " newer and more thoroughgoing Whigs . . . known by the name of Radicals . . . since called Liberals" ; and J. S. ?? in 1865 wrote (from his own Liberal point of view), " A Liberal is he who looks' forward for his principles of government; a Tory looks backward." The gradual adoption of the term for one of the great parties, superseding "Whig," was helped by the transition period of "Liberal Conservatism," describing the position of the later Peclitea; and Mr Gladstone's own career is the best instance of its changing signification; moreover the adjective "liberal" came meanwhile into common use in other spheres than that of parliamentary politics, e.g. in religion, as meaning "intellectually advanced" and free from the trammels of tradition.

Lord Palmerston was the most prominent minister of England for many years. He was one of those men who had been originally moderate Tories under the influence of Canning, but who had afterwards drifted into the Liberal party during the agitation for the first Reform Bill. His service as minister in Tory cabinets had extended from 1809 to 1830; afterwards as foreign secretary and then as prime minister he was an influential member of almost every Liberal cabinet for thirty-five years, till his death in 1865. He had always adopted a high tone in foreign affairs, and many of the foreign disputes into which England had been drawn were largely a consequence of his policy. He had usually been able to win success for his party and his country in these contests, and he had thus become extremely popular and influential. To one object to which the Liberal party was becoming more devoted, however, he was steadily opposed. This was the further reform of parliament on the lines of the Reform Bill of 1832.

Many other prominent men in the Liberal party, although they had refused for many years after 1832 to agree to any further reform and had opposed the efforts of the Chartists, came in time to believe that the right of voting should be extended more widely and that the districts which were represented should be made more nearly equal. This agitation began about 1852. The leader who best represented the^te views and who was most influential in carrying out further reforms was.William Ewart Gladstone. Mr. Gladstone, who served altogether for more than sixty years in parliament, entered the House of Commons in 1833, the year after the adoption of the first Reform Bill. He was then a Conservative, though one of the moderate group which was under the influence of Sir Robert Peel, just as Palmerston and Peel himself had been under that of Canning. In 1865, on the death of Lord Palmerston, Gladstone became the unquestioned leader of the Liberal party, though Lord Russell, as the older and more prominent man, became prime minister.

Broadly speaking, in the 19th Century the Liberal party stood for progressive legislation in accordance with freedom of social development and advanced ethical ideas. It claimed to represent government by the people, by means of trust in the people, in a sense which denies genuine popular sympathy to its opponents. Being largely composed of dissenters [that is, members of churches other than the established Church of England], it identified itself with opposition to the vested interests of the Church of England; and, being apt to be thwarted by the House of Lords, with attempts to override the veto of that house.

Its old watchword, "Peace, retrenchment and reform," indicated its tendency to avoidance of a "spirited" foreign policy, and to parsimony in expenditure. But throughout its career prior to the Great War the Liberal party had always been pushed forward by its extreme Radical wing, and economy in the spending of public money was no longer cherished by those who chiefly represented the non-taxpaying classes.

The party organization lent itself to the influence of new forces. In 1861 a central organization was started in the "Liberal Registration Association," composed "of gentlemen of known Liberal opinions"; and a number of "Liberal Associations " soon rose throughout the country. Of these, that at Birmingham became, under Mr J. Chamberlain and his active supporter Mr Schnadhorst, particularly active in the 'seventies; and it was due to Mr Schnadhorst that in 1877 a conference was held at Birmingham which resulted in the formation of the " National Federation of Liberal Associations," or " National Liberal Federation," representing a system of organization which was dubbed by Lord Beaconsfield "the Caucus." The Birmingham Caucus and the Central Liberal Association thus coexisted, the first as an independent democratic institution, the second as the official body representing the whips of the party, the first more advanced and "Radical," the second inclined to Whiggishness. Friction naturally resulted, but the 1880 elections confirmed the success of the Caucus and consolidated its power.

And in spite of the Home Rule crisis in 1886, resulting in the splitting off of the Liberal Unionists - "dissentient Liberals," as Mr Gladstone called them - from the Liberal party, the organization of the National Liberal Federation remained, in the dark days of the party, its main support. Its headquarters were, however, removed to London, and under Mr Schnadhorst it was practically amalgamated with the old Central Association.

Except for one short interval, the party made up of a combination of the old Conservatives with the Liberal Unionists had a majority in parliament for the twenty years following the defeat of the Liberal party in 1886. Lord Salisbury was prime minister during the early part of this period, Arthur Balfour during its later part. This was the period of land and local government reform in Ireland, the Boer war, the early stages of imperial federation, the golden and diamond jubilees of Queen Victoria, and the accession of Edward VII.

The Conservative-Liberal Unionist ministry, finding its difficulties greater and greater, resigned in December, 1905, and a Liberal ministry was formed. They dissolved parliament and held new elections in January, 1906. The result was an overwhelming victory for the group of progressive parties, 378 Liberals, 83 Nationalists, and 53 Labor members being elected. This gave 514 supporters to the ministry, with only 156 opponents. This ministry was at first under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman as prime minister and later under Mr. Asquith. Its most prominent members, in addition to the prime minister, have been David Lloyd George, during most of the time chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Edward Grey, foreign secretary, Winston 'Churchill, Herbert J. Gladstone, son of the great prime minister, James Bryce, later ambassador to the United States, John Burns, a Labor member, John Morley, and Sydney Buxton.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:07:55 ZULU