Despite faint signs of revival in the by-election successes of 1955 and 1956, the Liberal Party remained in a weakened state, with its leader, Clement Davies, coming under pressure to retire. He finally announced his resignation in September 1956, and was replaced two months later by Jo Grimond. Grimond quickly succeeded in reviving the Liberal Party’s base in local politics. He also put a strong emphasis on policy formulation, establishing the New Direction policy-making groups between 1958 and 1960. New issues such as European integration and innovations in defence policy were now addressed, but the Liberal mainstays of co-ownership, free trade and civil liberties remained central to the Party’s identity, receiving close attention in publications such as 1957’s The Unservile State and the 1959 Ownership for All Report. The 1959 General Election saw the Party improve its situation significantly, doubling its total national vote and overall vote share.
In the aftermath of Labour’s 1997 landslide victory, the likelihood of Liberal Democrat participation in a centre-left coalition seemed remote. Nevertheless, Tony Blair made it clear to Paddy Ashdown that he still favoured what he called ‘a framework for co-operation’ between the two parties. The short-term outcome was the appointment of several leading Liberal Democrats to the Jenkins Commission on Electoral Reform. Blair’s subsequent championing of ‘the Third Way’ prompted criticism from key Liberal Democrats, who found themselves re-examining their own values in order to provide an alternative. But this theoretical disagreement did not affect Ashdown’s strategy of following a path roughly the same as that of the Blairites. A greater rift was cause when Blair reneged on his promise to hold a referendum on electoral reform following the publication of the Jenkins Report. Ashdown was deeply disappointed. Realising that any prospect of a centre-left realignment had disappeared, he announced his resignation as Party Leader on 20 January 1999.
This final chapter reflects on the continuities and changes that have marked British Liberalism since the beginning of its revival under Jo Grimond in the 1950s. It identifies the main recurring themes as free trade, civil liberties, political and constitutional reform, and international cooperation – all of them forming a Liberal ‘third way’ between the Conservatives and Labour. The ‘market revolution’ of the 1980s posed an ideological dilemma for the Party, as Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives appropriated various economic liberal policies, prompting some Liberals to consider a more statist approach. But the formation of the Social and Liberal Democrats in 1988 marked the return of economic liberal ideas, with Paddy Ashdown striving to combine the market economy with a commitment to the ideals of community and active citizenship. The Party suffered terrible outcomes in the 2015 General Election and the 2016 EU referendum, but there are early signs of recovery in the modest gains of the 2017 General Election and the subsequent local elections of May 2018. Nonetheless, the future prospects for the Party remain uncertain, and the path of British Liberalism continues to appear uneven.
In spite of a good electoral outcome in 2005, some Liberal Democrats felt that their Party had failed to make the most of the political situation. It was decided that a narrative had to be agreed, establishing what the Party was for rather than what it was against. Meanwhile, a group of new MPs were raising concerns about a lack of internal organisation and strategic direction. In January 2016, Charles Kennedy finally made a statement about his alcohol problem and proposed a leadership contest, but he was ultimately obliged to step down in the face of a threat of mass resignations. The new Leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, made a commitment to restore stability and purpose by improving Party organisation. But he was soon under fire as a Conservative resurgence saw the Liberal Democrats lose 246 seats in the May 2007 local council elections. Facing the prospect of a general election that Autumn, Campbell secured his position with a well-received Leader’s speech, but when the election was postponed, he decided to resign rather than endure two more years of speculation over his leadership. His replacement, Nick Clegg, was elected leader in December, having narrowly defeated Chris Huhne.
The 2010 General Election saw the Conservatives win 307 seats, somewhat short of what they needed for a Commons majority. Following a week of negotiations, Nick Clegg led the Liberal Democrats into a coalition government. The coalition’s Programme contained three-quarters of the Liberal Democrat election manifesto, most notably a commitment to hold a referendum on changing the Westminster voting system to Alternative Vote. But in spite of this, the Party faced a rapid backlash, with its poll ratings falling to 11 per cent by the end of the year. It subsequently lost 40 per cent of its seats in the local elections of May 2011, which occurred on the same day as the AV referendum – another loss. However, despite the electoral setbacks, there were a number of achievements, including educational funding for children from disadvantaged backgrounds, an increase in the income tax allowance and, in July 2013, the legalisation of same-sex marriage. Unfortunately for the Party, much of what it accomplished was not obvious to the electorate, and over the five years of coalition government it lost one-third of its membership and two-thirds of its popular support in the national opinion polls.
Soon after becoming Liberal Leader, David Steel unveiled his strategy for the Party at the Liberal Assembly in September 1976. It was based on inter-party cooperation, which might involve a pact or even a coalition. A Lib-Lab Pact was indeed formed in March 1977, though it did not entail any Liberal Cabinet positions or commitments to electoral reform, and its outcome for the Liberals was ultimately disappointing. Jo Grimond, meanwhile, busied himself attacking the creeping acceptance of nationalisation and bureaucracy. In 1978 he published The Common Welfare, which offered a radical alternative to the command state based on the three pillars of liberal society: the free market, cooperation and community development. Steel terminated the Lib-Lab Pact in September 1978. The subsequent general election of 1979 was disappointing for the Liberals, though they managed to avoid a return to the desolation of the pre-Grimond era.
Following the 1979 General Election, the Liberal Party engaged in a public examination of its values, focusing on the role of the State within the economy. This issue was subsequently taken up by former Labour MP Roy Jenkins in his 1979 Dimbleby Lecture, where he called for a system balancing free-market innovation with controls on employment and redistribution. Liberal leader David Steel approached Jenkins about establishing a social-democratic political organisation that could work in alliance with the Liberals, an idea that received a boost in 1981 with the Gang of Four’s Limehouse Declaration and the subsequent formation of the Social Democratic Party. A Liberal/SDP Alliance followed later that year. In the 1983 General Election, it won a substantial share of the popular vote, just a little less than Labour. But as before, the first-past-the-post system meant only a modest gain in seats, and the Alliance did not succeed in breaking the mould of two-party politics.
Following the 1983 General Election, Liberal leader David Steel took a sabbatical, giving SDP Leader David Owen an opportunity to come to the fore. Owen made it a priority to preserve the SDP’s independence. He took the radical step of combining market realism with social concern in a concept he called the ‘social market economy’. While much of this was in tune with Liberal thinking, the emphasis on the market economy generated controversy within the Alliance. From 1986, however, the argument was overshadowed by a dispute on defence policy. Following the publication of a Liberal-SDP report that refused to guarantee the replacement of Britain’s nuclear deterrent, Owen responded angrily, insisting on the need for Britain to remain a nuclear weapon State. The price of the resulting dispute was a substantial drop in Alliance polling, though this was reversed by gains the following year. The 1987 General Election saw the Alliance perform well, but they failed to hold the balance of power or replace Labour as the main opposition. Shortly afterwards, an SDP ballot found in favour of merging with the Liberals, prompting Owen to resign. The Social and Liberal Democrats was formally launched on 3 March 1988.
Following the 1959 General Election, Jo Grimond moved forward with his strategy of realigning the British Left, even hinting at the possibility of an alliance with the Labour Party. He continued to emphasise the importance of wealth-redistribution, promoting alternative approaches to the argument over private and public ownership. He also worked on establishing a clearer formulation of Liberal ideas and policy via the New Directions groups, which published a series of pamphlets throughout the 1960s. Modernisation and internationalism emerged as the two dominant themes. Ultimately, however, Labour’s comfortable victory in the 1966 General Election banished any possibility of an alliance, undermining Grimond’s efforts at realignment.
David Owen; Social Democratic Party; A Future That Will Work; Leighton Andrews; social market economy; The Time Has Come; SDP/Liberal Alliance; Joint Commission on Defence and Disarmament; Polaris nuclear submarines; Social and Liberal Democrats