Liberalism in the United Kingdom: Wikis


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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.



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 US 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 left-wing 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 left of centre 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 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] This, however, has drawn derision from political opponents as well as from some within the Conservative party. And it does not necessarily mean that all members of the Conservative Party regard it as a liberal party.

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. As a result, some commentators say that the party has, at least on a national level, moved left into social democracy (although members often claim that the right-left spectrum is inadequate in a post-Cold War and post-ideological Britain). 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') and strong civil liberties.

Notable Liberal Prime Ministers include:



Great Britain

Main History

  • 1647: The proto-liberal Levellers are formed
  • 1653: The Levellers disappeared
From Whigs to Liberal Democrats

Splinter Parties

  • 1830s: The Radicals became active and allied themselves with the Whigs
  • 1859: The Radicals merged into the new Liberal Party
  • 1840s: The Peelites seceded from the Tories
  • 1859: The Peelites merged into the new Liberal Party
Liberal Unionist Party
Independent Liberals (1918)
  • 1918: A faction of the Liberal Party formed the Independent Liberals
  • 1923: The Independent Liberals rejoined the Liberal Party
Liberal National Party / National Liberal Party
  • 1931: A moderate faction of the Liberal Party formed the Liberal National Party
  • 1947: The LNP is renamed National Liberal Party and formally merges with the Conservative Party; however some MPs and candidates continue to use the National Liberal label (and variants thereof) for the next twenty years
  • 1966: The last self-identified National Liberals end the use of the title and disappear into the Conservative Party
Independent Liberals (1931)
  • 1931: A faction of the Liberal Party centred on Lloyd George and his family became Independent Liberals
  • 1935: Lloyd George's Independent Liberals rejoined with the rest of the Liberal Party
Liberal Party
  • 1988: A faction of the old Liberal party formed the new Liberal Party

Northern Ireland

Liberalism in Northern Ireland

  • 1969: The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is formed
  • 1985: The Ulster Liberal Party fields its last candidate in a Northern Ireland election and subsequently endorses Alliance candidates instead.
  • 1988: A small branch of the Liberal Democrats is formed in Northern Ireland. Like the Ulster Liberal Party, it supports Alliance Party candidates in elections.

Liberal leaders

Liberal thinkers

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

See also

External links


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