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Liberal Democrats - UK Political Party

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The United Kingdom, for those unfamiliar with its politics, is governed by a multi-party representative democracy. Three political parties, at time of writing, dominate the scene. The Conservatives, sometimes called by their old name of 'Tories', and the Labour party are two. The third major party is the Liberal Democrats, and this is their story.

On 2 March, 1988, the Social Democratic Party (SDP) voted to merge with the Liberal Party. They were originally called the Social and Liberal Democrats, however there was much confusion over this name and it was later shortened first to simply 'The Democrats' and then by a vote of the members in 1989 to the Liberal Democrats. For a number of years before the official merger of the two parties they had been co-operating and had contested the 1987 General Election as the SDP-Liberal Alliance. The two parties for this election had decided to nominate one candidate to represent the two of them to try and gain more seats for the centre parties in the UK.

Historical Background

The Liberals stemmed out of the Whigs, one of the two loosely banded together 'parties' in the early parliaments. In the early part of the 19th Century a further grouping of Radicals started to gain representation and position within Parliament. The Radicals came alongside the Whigs, and in 1834, under the leadership of Lord John Russell, started to be known as the Liberal Party. For the rest of that century, the Liberals were either in Government or in opposition to the Tories. Four times in the latter half of the century William Gladstone led the party to election success, the most times anyone has become Prime Minister while standing for the opposition.

In 1906, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman led the Liberals to a landslide victory, but the rise of Socialism in the UK and the eventual advent of the Labour party meant that following Bannerman's death in 1908, Herbert Henry Asquith was Prime Minister at the outbreak of World War I. In 1916 he was succeeded by David Lloyd George who formed a coalition government with the Conservatives. However, in 1922 Mr George resigned, and the rise in strength of the Labour Party from then on meant that the Liberal Party never again held power.

For the vast majority of the 20th Century, the Liberal Party was in decline, struggling to remain the third party of British politics and at one General Election actually falling behind one of the Northern Irish unionist parties. The electoral system in Britain seemed to favour the two largest parties, the Conservative and Labour Parties, more than the smaller parties. This was mainly because the electorate would vote either for someone who would form the largest party, or someone who would not. Therefore the only way to change who had control of the country was to vote for the main opposition party and voting for a smaller party was viewed as a wasted vote. During the 1970s and '80s, other parties (first the Scottish Nationalists, then the Liberals) rose in popularity but their share in the vote was not to be reflected in seats. This is one of the things that led to the establishment of the Social Democratic Party in March 1981 when Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers left the Labour Party. They maintained a separate identity for a couple of years but started working closely with the Liberals. In the run up to the 1987 election a formal Alliance pact was drawn up where the two parties would decide which seats each was running in so as not to split their vote.

The Alliance

The twin leadership of the two Davids (David Steel, Leader of the Liberals (1976-88) and David Owen leader of the SDP (1983-87)) did not bring about a great electoral success in the 1987 General Election. David Steel had famously told the Liberal Party at their conference before the election, 'return to your seats and prepare for government' in his keynote speech. After the poor result serious thought was given to the future of the centrist parties. Of greatest concern was whether to make the Alliance more permanent or to make the differences more obvious. The Alliance had been satirised by the Channel 4 TV show Spitting Image which showed the puppet of David Steel residing in the breast pocket of David Owen's jacket.

Robert Maclennan succeeded David Owen as SDP leader following the election, and a year later the two parties voted to merge. Neither David Steel nor Maclennan wanted to continue as leader, so fresh elections were sought. The winner was Paddy Ashdown1 who took over the leadership of a party that was on the verge of bankruptcy. So bad was the financial state of the parties that the Inland Revenue were in the Headquarters at Cawley Street, London, only hours before Paddy arrived to make his acceptance speech.

1989 - The Low Point

A rump SDP carried on in existence, as did a Liberal Party (who still fielded a few unsuccessful candidates in the 2001 General Election) for the following two years under the leadership of Owen with two other MPs. This was to become Paddy's first battleground in trying to establish the newly merged party as the voice of the centre in UK politics.

With the Conservative Leon Brittan being appointed to the European Commission, his seat of Richmond, Yorkshire was seen as a potential gain for a centre party. Both the Democrats and the SDP fielded strong candidates and between them they gained more votes than the Conservative winner (William Hague, leader of the Conservative Party 1997-2001) but both failed to gain the seat.

A few months later, in June, the Democrats and SDP sank to a low of 6% of the vote and more worryingly were beaten to third place by the Green Party. The Liberal Party had for a long time had an environmental agenda, especially as their traditional heartlands were the mainly rural South West England and Northern Scotland. This was a new blow for the party as they were trying to gain a foothold on the middle ground.

Turnaround in Fortunes and Local Government Success

The 1990 Local Elections marked a watershed in the downward slide of the fledgling party. The Conservatives lost out heavily in the local election of June that year and a great deal of seats in a number of council changed to Liberal Democrat hands. The party started to establish a local base, and, in the councils they ran, they held local area meetings where the electorate could discuss concerns with a forum of councillors. The national party started to build on this involvement at grass roots level to show they could be trusted with making decisions; after all it had been decades since the Liberals held power on the national stage. Talk started about the Liberal Democrats having the balance of power and thereby sharing power as the polls started to look close in the run-up to the 1992 General Election. Despite small gains by the party, the Conservative Government of John Major held on, although with a greatly reduced majority.

The SDP lost most of the seats they were defending and slumped alarmingly in their share of the national vote. The Party voted itself out of existence in July. David Owen was made a Life Peer and was appointed EU ambassador for the Balkans to try and sort out a solution to the Bosnia-Herzegovina situation.

Throughout the next five years, as the government tried to push through the pro-European legislation that related to the Maastricht Treaty, there were a lot of disheartened Tories who voted against the Government at key stages and a number also defected to either Labour or the Liberal Democrats. John Major hung on in some key debates by a few votes or on one occasion only by the speaker (Betty Boothroyd) casting her deciding vote, as is traditional in a tied division with the government.

1997 - Best Result Since Lloyd George

1997 saw the first change of government in the UK in 18 years. The youngest people eligible to vote on the day were not even born the last time there was anything other than a Conservative government. Tony Blair entered Number 10 Downing Street with a landslide victory.

There were a number of records broken in the 1997 General Election, such as the greatest number of Labour seats ever and the fewest Conservatives since 1906 (the year of a Liberal landslide under Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman). This election also saw a recovery of the Liberal (Democrat) representation to more than double the previous Parliament and the greatest representation since the days of Lloyd George in 1929.

Return to Power (Sharing)

The advent of devolved government in Scotland and Wales in 1999, with elections by an Additional Member System of Proportional Representation (PR), was seized with enthusiasm by the Scottish and Welsh Liberal Democrats. Proportional Representation is an electoral system in which the number of seats held by each party is determined by the proportion of total votes received, and the allocation of seats to districts is determined separately. The party was determined to show that PR made sense and the outcome could be successfully negotiated in the UK. In Wales, Labour returned with an overall majority and took sole control in the Welsh Assembly. However, in Scotland there was no party with an outright majority of seats. Labour and the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government leading to the first time since the Second World War that a Liberal had held a cabinet position in the UK. The result was that, with the limited autonomy2 held by the Scottish Parliament, legislative differences occurred between Edinburgh and Westminster, most significantly the abolition of tuition fees for students in Scotland.

Following the success of 1997, and in the devolved powers, Paddy decided it was time he stepped down as leader to make way for a younger person - he was due to turn 60 in 2001. This he did in 1999 to be replaced by Charles Kennedy, who has been an MP since 1983 (when he won the seat while studying for a post graduate degree) for Ross, Skye and Inverness West, first for the SDP then as a Liberal Democrat.

2001 - More Slight Gains

The 2001 General Election saw only 14 seats change hands3. Apart from in Northern Ireland where a number of these changed from the moderate to the extreme parties, the greatest gainer of seats was the Liberal Democrats. They attained 52 seats (up six), while Labour lost five and the Conservatives gained one. The last time the party had held over 50 representatives was the same Lloyd George result in 1929. This was only seven short of the benchmark that the Liberals and then the Liberal Democrats had dreamed about during over half a century of decline. This has been achieved under the conventions of 'first past the post' elections4, which the party has argued is not truly reflective of the strength of the parties.

Major Policy Trends

Electoral Reform

The Liberal Democrats have believed for a long time that the current UK electoral system of 659 constituencies electing one MP each by a 'first past the post' system has been unrepresentative. Governments have won 60% of the seats with little over 40% of the popular vote while parties with 10-15% of the vote have had roughly half that proportion of seats. The Party has campaigned for a review of elections at all levels in the UK, and with Proportional Representation now being used in European, Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly elections, they want it extended to local councils and Westminster.

The PR systems used in Scotland, Wales and Europe have all resulted in the Liberal Democrats and Nationalist Parties gaining a more proportionate share of the power in these areas. As the majority of Europe already operates some form of PR the party is not advocating any untested system but something that is satisfactory and workable in a number of differing regimes.

Good Public Services

Since the days of Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-1990) the National Health Service and Schools have faced increasingly reduced budgets in real terms - accounting for inflation and population to supply. Since the 1992 General Election Manifesto, the Liberal Democrats have insisted that the reductions the Conservatives made to Income Tax need only be reversed by one penny in the pound to be able to remedy this shortfall. Labour used government surpluses in their first years in power to try to meet this demand, but the Liberal Democrats believe this is only a short-term cosmetic solution, and that the problem still needs to be addressed in the long term.


Since the days of Gladstone in the 19th Century, the Liberal Party (and now the Liberal Democrats) have always realised that Britain is unable to truly stand alone and needs to be concerned about her continental neighbours. The Liberal Democrats are the most staunchly pro-European of the main political parties in the UK and believe that the UK needs to be involved in the decision making over Europe's future rather than always playing the game of catch-up or wait-and-see that occurred under the Conservatives. The party also believes that a single European Currency, rather than taking away British sovereignty, is vital for the future well-being of British industry, as it provides a level of price stability enabling producers to make long term plans more easily.

Accountable Government

The Liberal Democrats believe in a totally accountable Government, not just one held to account when they decide to call a general election. This has been started in the councils of which they have control by having regular local meetings, either at ward level or in a small number of neighbouring wards. Here the councillors are meeting with the public, answering queries, and listening to concerns for their area. The party would like to see this expanded to a national level, and in their manifestos for national elections they publish an open plan of the public spending they envisage being needed for the term of the next government and how they propose to meet it.

Liberal Party Leaders

The Leader of the Liberal Party, until the 20th Century, could be the leader in either the House of Lords or Commons and the Monarch could call on either to form a government. Therefore a full list of leaders in both houses is listed below (complete as of time of writing, August 2001).

In the House of Commons

  • 1834 - 1855 John Russell (Earl Russell)
  • 1855 - 1865 Henry John Temple (Viscount Palmerstone)
  • 1865 - 1875 William Gladstone
  • 1875 - 1880 Spencer Cavendish (Marquis of Hartington)
  • 1880 - 1894 William Gladstone
  • 1894 - 1899 William Harcourt
  • 1899 - 1908 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman
  • 1908 - 1916 Herbert Asquith (Earl of Oxford and Asquith)
  • 1916 - 1931 David Lloyd George
  • 1931 - 1935 Sir Herbert Samuel
  • 1935 - 1945 Sir Archibald Sinclair Bt
  • 1945 - 1956 Edward Davies
  • 1956 - 1967 Jo Grimmond
  • 1967 - 1976 Jeremy Thorpe
  • May - July 1976 Jo Grimmond (Acting Leader5)
  • 1976- 1988 David Steel

Formation of the Liberal Democrats

  • 1988 - 1999 Paddy Ashdown
  • 1999 - present Charles Kennedy

In the House of Lords

  • 1852 - 1865 Earl Granville
  • 1865 - 1868 Earl Russell
  • 1868 - 1891 Earl Granville
  • 1891 - 1894 Earl of Kimberley
  • 1894 - 1896 Earl of Rosebery (Archibald Primrose) Prime Minister
  • 1896 - 1902 Earl of Kimberley
  • 1902 - 1905 Earl Spencer
  • 1905 - 1908 Marquis of Ripon
  • 1908 - 1923 Earl of Crewe (from 1911 Marquis of Crewe)
  • 1923 - 1924 Viscount Grey
  • 1924 - 1931 Earl Beauchamp
  • 1931 - 1936 Marquis of Reading
  • 1936 - 1944 Marquis of Crewe (as above)
  • 1944 - 1955 Viscount Samuel (Herbert Samuel)
  • 1955 - 1967 Lord Rea (Phillip Russell Rea)
  • 1967 - 1984 Lord Byers (Charles Byers)
  • 1984 - 1987 Baroness Seear (Nancy Seear)
Formation of the Liberal Democrats
  • 1987 - 1998 Lord Jenkins of Hillhead (Roy Jenkins)
  • 1998 - present Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank (Bill Rodgers)
1MP for Yeovil 1983-2001. His real name is Jeremy John Durham Ashdown; he gained the nickname Paddy in the Marines because of his Irish mother. Allegations concerning an extra-marital affair also prompted one national tabloid newspaper to give him another nickname - that of 'Paddy Pantsdown' - which it duly splashed in bold black letters all over its frontpage.2Of all the devolved parts of the UK the Scottish Parliament alone has tax raising powers. The others, Northern Ireland and Wales, like Scotland, have a range of areas over which they now hold legislative control. These are passed by the respective institution before being given Royal Assent by the Queen. However, the Westminster Government still holds some veto over any change made by the devolved powers which is too divergent from its own policies. Some key areas of national importance, like Defence, are still only within the remit of Westminster.3The Liberal Democrats gained five and the Conservatives one at Labour's expense. Labour and Plaid Cymru exchanged two seats in Wales. The Conservatives regained Tatton and Labour lost Wyre Valley to an Independent. Four seats also changed hands in Northern Ireland.4'First Past the Post' is the name of the electoral system whereby the party receiving the most votes in a given district gets the MP (Member of Parliament) for that district, with no requirement that they receive a certain percentage of votes. A party receiving the second most number of votes get no representation to reflect this fact.5Following the resignation of Thorpe pending criminal investigations against him. These were later shown to be unfounded.

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