LIBERAL PARTY, in Great Britain, the name given to and accepted by the successors of the old Whig party (see Whig and Tory), representing the political party opposed to Toryism or Conservatism, and claiming to be the originators and champions of political reform and progressive legislation. The term came into general use definitely as the name of one of the two great parties in the state when Mr Gladstone became its leader, but before this it had already become current coin, as a political appellation, through a natural association with the use of such phrases as “liberal ideas,” in the sense of “favourable to change,” or “in support of political freedom and democracy.” In this respect it was the outcome of the French Revolution, and in the early years of the 19th century the term was used in a French form; thus Southey in 1816 wrote about the “British Liberales.” But the Reform Act and the work of Bentham and Mill resulted in the crystallization of the term. In Leigh Hunt’s autobiography (1850) we read of “newer and more thorough-going Whigs . . . known by the name of Radicals . . . since called Liberals”; and J. S. Mill in 1865 wrote (from his own Liberal point of view), “A Liberal is he who looks forward for his principles of government; a Tory looks backward.” The gradual adoption of the term for one of the great parties, superseding “Whig,” was helped by the transition period of “Liberal Conservatism,” describing the position of the later Peelites; and Mr Gladstone’s own career is the best instance of its changing signification; moreover the adjective “liberal” came meanwhile into common use in other spheres than that of parliamentary politics, e.g. in religion, as meaning “intellectually advanced” and free from the trammels of tradition. Broadly speaking, the Liberal party stands for progressive legislation in accordance with freedom of social development and advanced ethical ideas. It claims to represent government by the people, by means of trust in the people, in a sense which denies genuine popular sympathy to its opponents. Being largely composed of dissenters, it has identified itself with opposition to the vested interests of the Church of England; and, being apt to be thwarted by the House of Lords, with attempts to override the veto of that house. Its old watchword, “Peace, retrenchment and reform,” indicated its tendency to avoidance of a “spirited” foreign policy, and to parsimony in expenditure. But throughout its career the Liberal party has always been pushed forward by its extreme Radical wing, and economy in the spending of public money is no longer cherished by those who chiefly represent the non-taxpaying classes. The party organization lends itself to the influence of new forces. In 1861 a central organization was started in the “Liberal Registration Association,” composed “of gentlemen of known Liberal opinions”; and a number of “Liberal Associations” soon rose throughout the country. Of these, that at Birmingham became, under Mr J. Chamberlain and his active supporter Mr Schnadhorst, particularly active in the ’seventies; and it was due to Mr Schnadhorst that in 1877 a conference was held at Birmingham which resulted in the formation of the “National Federation of Liberal Associations,” or “National Liberal Federation,” representing a system of organization which was dubbed by Lord Beaconsfield “the Caucus.” The Birmingham Caucus and the Central Liberal Association thus coexisted, the first as an independent democratic institution, the second as the official body representing the whips of the party, the first more advanced and “Radical,” the second inclined to Whiggishness. Friction naturally resulted, but the 1880 elections confirmed the success of the Caucus and consolidated its power. And in spite of the Home Rule crisis in 1886, resulting in the splitting off of the Liberal Unionists—“dissentient Liberals,” as Mr Gladstone called them—from the Liberal party, the organization of the National Liberal Federation remained, in the dark days of the party, its main support. Its headquarters were, however, removed to London, and under Mr Schnadhorst it was practically amalgamated with the old Central Association.
It is impossible here to write in detail the later history of the Liberal party, but the salient facts will be found in such articles as those on Mr Gladstone, Mr J. Chamberlain, Lord Rosebery, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman, Mr H. H. Asquith and Mr David Lloyd George.
See, apart from general histories of the period, M. Ostrogorski’s Democracy and the Organization of Political Parties (Eng. trans. 1902).