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The uneven path of British Liberalism

From Jo Grimond to Brexit

Tudor Jones

This book explores the development of liberal thought within the British Liberal Party and its successor, the Liberal Democrats. A thorough updating of The Revival of British Liberalism: From Grimond to Clegg (2011), it begins with the accession of Jo Grimond at the time of the Suez crisis in 1956 and charts the liberal resurgence in the second half of the twentieth century through to the major setbacks of the 2015 General Election and the 2016 referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Drawing on interviews with leading politicians and political thinkers, the book examines liberal ideas against the background of key historical events and controversies, including the period of coalition government with the Conservatives. A comprehensive account of British liberalism throughout the last 60 years, it will be essential reading for students, scholars and political practitioners alike.

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Tudor Jones

The culmination of the five-year decline in the Liberal Democrats’ popular support was the Party’s disastrous performance in the 2015 British General Election. A campaign that stressed the Party’s achievements in office while emphasising their centrist position did nothing to win over voters. The result was the loss of some 49 seats – the worst result since 1970. More bad news was to follow when, on 23 June 2016, the UK voted 51.9 per cent to 48.1 per cent to leave the European Union. Tim Farron, who had replaced Nick Clegg as Leader following the latter’s resignation, attempted to make a positive case for remaining in the EU, but this was drowned out by the Remain campaign’s appeal to caution and preserving the status quo. Over the course, then, of six years, the Liberal Democrats had suffered major losses in electoral support at nearly every level of British government, concluding with a disastrous outcome at the 2015 General Election, and 13 months later an equally calamitous result in the 2016 EU referendum.

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Tudor Jones

From the beginning of his period as Leader, Nick Clegg sought to downplay the division within the Liberal Democrats between ‘social liberals’ and ‘economic liberals’. However, policies such as channelling savings from public spending into tax cuts suggested that he was more inclined towards the latter. In an effort to achieve balance, the Party created a new think-tank, the Social Liberal Forum, which recognised the valid role of the State as an enabler of individual freedom, though it still found room for criticism. Clegg himself, in a pamphlet titled The Liberal Moment, attacked Labour’s State-driven approach as ‘fundamentally flawed’ and highlighted recent infringements in civil liberties. The Liberal Democrats did well in local elections throughout 2008 and 2009. When Gordon Brown finally called a general election for 2010, the Party built its manifesto around the theme of ‘fairness’, including ‘fair taxes’ and ‘a fair chance for every child’. They also pledged to phase out university tuition fees. Clegg’s performance in the first televised Party Leaders’ debates was strong, and the Liberal Democrats ultimately won 57 seats, with 23.6 per cent of the total vote.

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Tudor Jones

Beginning with the 1945 General Election, this chapter assesses the position of the British Liberal Party at mid-century. A poor performance in 1945, which saw several Party notables, including leader Sir Archibald Sinclair, lose their seats, was followed by further decline in the elections of 1950 and 1955, fought under Clement Davies. When Davies was offered the position of Minister of Education by Winston Churchill in 1951, he rejected it, a decision that likely saved the Party from absorption by the Conservatives. But the Liberals’ position remained highly precarious. It was not till after the 1955 General Election that the first stirrings of a revival began to be felt, notably in the by-elections at Torquay in December 1955 and Hereford in February 1956.

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Tudor Jones

The late 1960s was a period of uncertainty for the Liberal Party, which struggled with the question of how to position itself within the British political system. Overshadowing this question, however, was the Party’s declining electoral performance. But the period also witnessed the emergence of a radical Liberal youth movement, which advocated left-wing positions such as American withdrawal from Vietnam and British disengagement from NATO. The 1970 General Election saw the Liberals marginalised, prompting a major reappraisal of the Party’s strategy and purpose. Impetus came from the Young Liberal movement, which advanced a ‘community politics’ approach, stressing grass-roots social and political change. This had a decisive influence on the Party’s strategic and ideological development, and substantial gains were made in the local elections of 1973 and the 1974 General Election, though the first-past-the-post system meant that the Party’s 19.3 per cent national share equated to only 14 parliamentary seats.

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Tudor Jones

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

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Tudor Jones

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.

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Tudor Jones

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.

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Liberalism within the Alliance

Denting the mould: 1979–83

Tudor Jones

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.

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Tudor Jones

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.