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Liberalism in the United Kingdom


Liberalism in the United Kingdom

This article gives an overview of liberalism in the United Kingdom. It is limited to liberal parties with substantial support, mainly proved by having had a representation in parliament. The sign ⇒ denotes another party in that scheme. For inclusion in this scheme, it is not necessary that parties labelled themselves as a liberal party.


  • Background 1
  • Evolution of organised liberalism 2
  • Timeline of Liberal parties in Great Britain 3
    • From 1859 to 1899 3.1
    • 1900 to 1944 3.2
    • 1945 to present day 3.3
  • Timeline of Liberal parties in Northern Ireland 4
  • List of Liberal/Liberal led Governments of the United Kingdom 5
  • Liberal leaders 6
  • Liberal thinkers 7
  • See also 8
  • External links 9
  • References 10


In the United Kingdom, the word liberalism can have any of several meanings. Scholars use the term to refer to classical liberalism; the term also can mean economic liberalism, social liberalism or neoliberalism; it can simply refer to the politics of the Liberal Democrat party; it can occasionally have the imported American meaning, including the derogatory usage by conservatives. However, the derogatory connotation is much weaker in the UK than in the US, and social liberals from both the left and right wing continue to use liberal and illiberal to describe themselves and their opponents, respectively.

Historically, the term referred to the broad liberal political alliance of the nineteenth century, formed by Whigs, Peelites, and radicals. This alliance, which developed into the Liberal Party, dominated politics for much of the reign of Queen Victoria and during the years before World War I.

British liberalism is now organised mainly in the social liberalism of the Liberal Democrats (member LI, ELDR). The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (member LI, ELDR) is their counterpart in Northern Ireland.

Some members of the Conservative Party, most notably the late former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, regard that party as the closest major party to classical liberalism, because of its commitment to low taxation and economic deregulation. This may change with the election of David Cameron as leader. In his speech to the party conference in 2006, Cameron described the party as a "liberal conservative" party, and in a speech in Bath on Thursday 22 March 2007, he described himself as a liberal Conservative. [1] Furthermore, Cameron has set up a web-site designed to appeal to Liberal Democrat members and making heavy use of traditionally liberal rhetoric.[2] During the 2010 general election Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats, said this of Conservative claims to the word liberal: "There is a gulf in values between myself and David Cameron. They have no progressive reform agenda at all—only an unbearable sense of entitlement that it’s just their time to govern"

Evolution of organised liberalism

Emerging primarily from the Whigs of the nineteenth century, the Liberal Party was a major force in pre-World War I politics. Their main political rivals were the Conservative (Tory) Party.

After the War, their influence was undermined by the rise of socialism in the form of Labour Party, who displaced the Liberals to become the party of progressive and reformist tendencies.

The doctrine of the party has evolved considerably throughout history, matching concerns of the day. For historical details, see the article about Whiggery.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the party merged with the Social Democratic Party to become the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats are a main member of the European Liberal Democratic and Reform Party and the Liberal International.

Specifically Liberal policies that remain important to the party include support for free trade (albeit with heavy regulation aka 'fair trade'), progressive taxation, political reform and strong civil liberties.

Timeline of Liberal parties in Great Britain

Viscount Palmerston

From 1859 to 1899

The Whigs merged with the Peelites and Radicals into the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1859 general election, winning 356 seats. Henry John Temple, 3rd Viscount Palmerston becomes Prime Minister for the second time.
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1865 general election, winning 369 seats. Lord Palmerston dies in office and is succeeded by John Russell, 1st Earl Russell.
William Gladstone
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1868 general election, winning 387 seats. William Ewart Gladstone becomes Prime Minister.
The Liberal Party lose the 1874 general election, winning 242 seats. A Conservative Government is formed.
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1880 general election, winning 352 seats. Gladstone becomes Prime Minister for the second time.
The Liberal Party gain the most seats (319 seats) in the 1880 general election but fail to win an overall majority with the Irish Nationalists holding the balance of power.
Opponents of Irish Home Rule in the Liberal Party, led by Lord Hartington and Joseph Chamberlain, secede to form the Liberal Unionist Party. The Liberal Party lose the 1886 general election winning 191 seats. The Liberal Unionists win 77 seats and informally co-operate with the newly formed Conservative Government.
The Liberal Party win 272 seats in the 1892 general election and Gladstone becomes Prime Minister for the fourth time forming a minority government dependent on Irish Nationalist support. The Liberal Unionists win 45 seats.
Gladstone resigns as Prime Minister and his successor is Archibald Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery.
The Liberal Party lose the 1895 general election, winning 177 seats. The Liberal Unionists win 71 seats and with the Conservatives form an Unionist Government.

1900 to 1944

The Liberal Party win 184 seats in the 1900 general election. The Liberal Unionists win 68 seats and with the Conservatives form an Unionist Government.
The Liberal Party win an overall majority in the 1906 general election, winning 396 seats. Henry Campbell-Bannerman becomes Prime Minister. This would prove to be the greatest victory for the Liberals and also the last time the Liberal Party won a majority in their own right. The Liberal Unionists win 25 seats.
H. H. Asquith
Henry Campbell-Bannerman resigns as Prime Minister and is succeeded by H. H. Asquith.
The Liberal Party win 274 seats and the Liberal Unionists win 32 seats in January 1910 general election. Asquith forms a government with the support of the Irish Nationalists. Another election is held in December, with the Liberal Party winning 272 seats and the Liberal Unionists winning 36 seats. This would prove the last time the Liberal Party won the highest number of seats in the House of Commons.
The Liberal Unionists merge with the Conservatives to form the present-day Conservative and Unionist Party.
After several British set backs in World War One, H. H. Asquith invites the Conservatives to form a war-time coalition government. This marked the end of the last all Liberal government.
David Lloyd George
H. H. Asquith loses support of the Conservative Party and David Lloyd George becomes Prime Minister. The Liberal Party is now split into two factions: one camp supporting Lloyd George and the other following Asquith.
At the end of the war, Coalition Liberals winning 127 seats and the Asquith led Independent Liberals winning 36 seats. Lloyd George remains Prime Minister with Conservative support.
Lloyd George is forced to resign after loss of support from the Conservatives. In the National Liberals win 53 seats, whilst the Asquith led independent Liberals win 62 seats.
The National Liberals and the Independent Liberals factions are re-united as one in support of free trade and the Liberal Party win 158 seats in the 1923 general election. It was the last election in which the Liberals won more than 100 seats.
The Liberal Party are nearly wiped out and win only 40 seats in the 1924 general election.
The Liberal Party win 59 seats in the 1929 general election.
The Liberal Party agress to join the Independent Liberals. The third grouping, the 'official' Liberal Party, was led by Herbert Samuel. In the 1931 general election, the Liberal Nationals won 35 seats, the 'official' Liberals won 33 seats, the Independent Liberals won 4 seats.
The 'official' Liberal Party leave the National Government.
In the 1945 general election.
The Liberal National Party is renamed National Liberal Party and formally merges with the Conservative Party at constituency level; however some MPs and candidates continue to use the National Liberal label (and variants thereof) for the next twenty years.
The Liberal Party win 9 seats in the 1950 general election. Candidates under the National Liberals banner win 17 seats.
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1951 general election. National Liberals win 19 seats and with the Conservatives form a Conservative Government.
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1955 general election. National Liberals win 21 seats and with the Conservatives form a Conservative Government.
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1951 general election. National Liberals win 19 seats and with the Conservatives form a Conservative Government.
The Liberal Party win 9 seats in the 1964 general election. National Liberals win 6 seats.
The Liberal Party win 12 seats in the 1966 general election. National Liberals win 3 seats.
The National Liberals merge completely with the Conservative Party.
The Liberal Party win 6 seats in the 1970 general election.
The Liberal Party win 14 seats in the February 1974 general election and hold the balance of power. The Liberal Party win 13 seats in the October 1974 general election.
The Liberal Party win 11 seats in the 1979 general election.
A faction in the Labour Party break away and form Social Democratic Party (SDP).
An electoral and political alliance between the Liberal Party and SDP is formed. The Liberal Party win 17 seats and the SDP win 6 seats in the 1983 general election.
The Liberal - SDP alliance win 22 seats in the 1987 general election.
The Liberal Party merge with SDP into the Liberal Democrats. The anti merger Liberal Party and continuing SDP are formed.
The Liberal Democrats win 20 seats in the 1992 general election.
The Liberal Democrats win 46 seats in the 1997 general election.
The Liberal Democrats win 52 seats in the 2001 general election.
A splinter group of the Conservative Party, Pro-Euro Conservative Party merges into Liberal Democrats.
The Liberal Democrats win 62 seats in the 2005 general election.
The Liberal Democrats win 57 seats in the 2010 general election and form a coalition government with the Conservatives.

Timeline of Liberal parties in Northern Ireland

The Ulster Liberal Association is formed, and is soon renamed as the Ulster Liberal Party.
The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is formed
The Ulster Liberal Party fields its last candidate in a Northern Ireland election and subsequently endorses Alliance candidates instead.
A small branch of the Liberal Democrats is formed in Northern Ireland. Like the Ulster Liberal Party, it supports Alliance Party candidates in elections.

List of Liberal/Liberal led Governments of the United Kingdom [1]

Portrait Prime Minister
Term of office

Electoral mandates
Political party
of Prime Minister
Henry John Temple,
3rd Viscount Palmerston

MP for Tiverton
12 June
18 October
Liberal Palmerston II
1859, 1865
Founded the Liberal Party in 1859, a few days prior to being elected ; term dominated by policy concerning the American Civil War; attempts to alleviate suffering caused by the Lancashire Cotton Famine. †Died in office.
John Russell,
1st Earl Russell

29 October
26 June
Liberal Russell II
Attempted to introduce a further Reform Bill, but was opposed by his Cabinet.
William Ewart Gladstone
MP for Greenwich
3 December
17 February
Liberal Gladstone I
Introduced reforms to the British Army, Civil Service and local government; made peacetime flogging illegal; Irish Church Act 1869; Irish Land Act 1870; Education Act 1870; Trade Union Act 1871; Ballot Act 1872; Licensing Act 1872; failed to prevent the Franco-Prussian War.
William Ewart Gladstone
MP for Midlothian
23 April
9 June
Liberal Gladstone II
Gordon in Khartoum, Sudan.
William Ewart Gladstone
MP for Midlothian
1 February
20 July
Liberal Gladstone III
First introduction of the Home Rule Bill for Ireland, which split the Liberal Party, resulting in the end of Gladstone's third elected government.
William Ewart Gladstone
MP for Midlothian
15 August
2 March
Liberal Gladstone IV
§Minority government. Reintroduction of the Home Rule Bill, which was passed by the House of Commons but rejected by the House of Lords leading to his fourth and final resignation.
Archibald Primrose,
5th Earl of Rosebery

5 March
22 June
Liberal Rosebery
Imperialist; plans for expanding the Royal Navy caused disagreement within the Liberal Party; resigned following a vote of censure over military supplies.
Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
MP for Stirling Burghs
5 December
7 April
Liberal Campbell-Bannerman
Restored autonomy to Transvaal and the Orange Free State; Anglo-Russian Entente; first Prime Minister to be referred to as such in Parliamentary legislation; died nineteen days after leaving office.
Herbert Henry Asquith
MP for East Fife
7 April
25 May
Liberal Asquith I
25 May
7 December
Asquith II
Jan.1910§, Dec.1910§
§Hung Parliaments. Liberal Welfare Reforms; People's Budget; Old Age Pensions Act 1908 and National Insurance Act 1911; Parliament Act 1911; Suffragettes and the Cat and Mouse Act; Home Rule Act 1914; World War I; Easter Rising.
Lloyd GeorgeDavid
MP for Caernarvon Boroughs
7 December
19 October
Liberal Lloyd George
Welsh-speaking: only Prime Minister whose mother tongue was not English. End of World War I; Paris Peace Conference; attempted to extend conscription to Ireland during the First World War; Chanak Crisis.

Liberal leaders

Liberal thinkers

In the Contributions to liberal theory the following British thinkers are included:

See also

External links

  • Liberal Democrat History Group
  • Liberal Globe Blog for left-leaning liberal interventionism


  1. ^
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