The Liberal Democrats (or Lib Dems) are not actually one party at all, like the Tories they are the result of an amalgam of two parties. Whereas the Tories were founded from a split in the Whig party until they evolved into a proper party, the Lib Dems were formed from a combination of an old party called the Liberals and a party formed from a breakaway of Labour members called the Socialist Democratic Party in 1988.
Let’s begin with the tale of the Liberals. When the modern Tories broke away from the Whigs there was just a small faction of Tories called the Peelites that originally been led by Robert Peel, a party of middle and working class liberalists called the Radicals and the remaining Whigs. In 1859 all three of these parties formed an alliance to become The Liberal Party. The Liberals were like an early socialist movement who had their own agenda based the ideologies of liberalism: classical liberalism, liberalism and social liberalism. This might sound confusing as liberalism seems to be similar to socialism but whereas socialism focuses on communal collectivism by all the people, liberalism is based on individual freedom, free trade and modern reforming. Plainly speaking social liberals like the Lib Dems of today are basically socialists that support capitalism.
Although the Lib Dems haven’t been in much positions of government seats or had a chance to lead the country since their inception, their predecessors the Liberals have been. The ideas of liberalism were created around the same time as the Tories were formed during the Age of Enlightenment. The first modern philosopher of liberalism was a man named John Locke who developed the idea that the government must consult the people they govern for their consent. Locke argued that there was a natural right of people to the liberty of conscience, which must be protected from government authority. Locke’s ideas also supported the foundations for the development of the independence and social liberation movements of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.
However Locke’s ideas first come to the fore in Britain in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 when the Bill of Rights was established in a joint agreement between Parliament and the newly joint crowned William and Mary, two heads of state who had replaced the unpopular James II who dismissed Parliament as a nuisance. The Bill established that the crown would have no interference with the law and allow free elections to Parliament, no taxes were to be levied or laws would be made without Parliament’s consent, trials must have juries and it was lawful to keep arms for national defence. It was also lawful for everyone to petition the monarch and outlaw ‘cruel and unusual’ punishments like hanging, drawing and quartering. Later we had a right to a free press and the foundations of freedom of speech. These teachings of liberalism have gone onto form the fundamental building blocks of democracy that we have today.
But what about the modern Liberal Democrats, where do they fit in with liberalism? Well they haven’t been in power by themselves but their beliefs, according to Wikipedia, are support for constitutional and electoral reform, progressive taxation, environmentalism, human rights laws, banking reform and civil liberties. Perhaps the more important values that the Lib Dems endorse is the foundations of modern democracy, social justice, and freedom, which they owe to their predecessors.
One of the Liberals most successful prime ministers was William Gladstone, who served as PM four times in four sets of offices between 1868 and 1894. Gladstone had a reputation for radical thinking supporting decent social values and support for the poor, reformation of the country’s governing framework, valuing human life, protecting the state and laying the foundations of devolution. He was called the ‘’Grand Old Man’’ by his followers and had a dynamic ability with oratory. His moral approach often angered his upper class associates and he opposed the monarchy. Among Gladstone’s praised achievements were developing order with other countries based on co-operation and mutual trust, which was defeated by his opponents; the development of the Elementary Education Act in 1870 providing elementary schools; abolished religious testing for schools; introduced the secret ballot, legalised trade unions and reorganised juries in a move that was motivated by the socialist movement with their chartist movements.
Gladstone’s most famous achievement in power is passing the Third Reform Act in 1884, one of three major Acts of Parliament that expanded the electorate to all corners of society which also lead to the creation of an Irish Parliamentary Party. In effect this led to the beginning of what can be considered the devolution of the United Kingdom.
One of the last successful Liberal politicians was the architect and social planner of the welfare state which was William Beveridge. The socialists and the liberalists shared some of the same beliefs with one another, as the liberalists also shared some beliefs with the conservatives (the philosophers, NOT the party). Beveridge worked closely with Winston Churchill and together these men were once members of the Liberal Party. So the welfare state wasn’t purely a socialist invention it was a liberalist too. The liberals were also brought in some of the last major reforms that would create the 20th century society that shape the second of the half of the century under the leadership of Herbert Asquith.
Among them were regulation of work hours, National Insurance and welfare. They also brought in the People’s Budget which was the first intent of redistributing wealth among the British public. For me these are the last great social inventions of the Liberal Party and it’s members and it seems like as the country got more and more in harmony with the same social values and standings for all classes of citizens we no longer needed many liberal reforms as necessary. Social and economic development would become the most valuable political agenda for the rest of the century. It was now more important to exploit liberties and freedom to achieve production for the nation and the people.