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British Liberalism and the Liberal Democrats

B.A. Political Science, Member of®
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Liberalism has greatly influenced the nation because modern Britain is based on liberal values. The Liberal Party dates back to 1859 in Britain and this party promoted balanced budgets, low taxes, and free market. In the early 20th century, Liberals made some progressive reforms by creating programs of health insurance, unemployment insurance, and pensions. These were the early times of the British welfare state. However, Liberals lost very much of their popularity after the Great War and the party merged with the Social Democratic Party in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats did not have much success since their creation, except through different alliances with parties in government. There are several reasons for these political failures. For example, several Liberals vote for the Labour Party or for the Conservatives that welcomes Liberals and Social Democrats. Besides, a union between two different groups of political ideals might not be the best way to build a political organization. Liberals are in favour of individual rights while the Social Democrats prefer supporting collective rights. Nonetheless, Liberals have made significant political contributions to British society over the 19th and 20th century. Nowadays, the Liberal Democrats still are trying very hard to get in power, but with little success. However, Liberals and Social Democrats, as a merged party, seem incompatible because they often have to support some of the policies advocated by the Tories and the Labour Party.

                To begin with, the Liberal Democrats promote the ideologies of liberalism and social democracy. Therefore, they believe in individual liberty as define in liberalism. The latter is about equality of opportunity, tolerance, and individualism. They also support social democratic values. Professor Vernon Bogdanor, a scholar at King`s College London, argues that ¨ Their [Liberalism] central theme was the need for government to gain the consent of the governed and on the contingent, liberal parties preached the importance of religious tolerance, free inquiry and self-government in Britain liberalism.¨ Thus, modern British society is based on the concepts advocated by the liberals. The party`s constitution of the Liberal Democrats states that ¨The Liberal Democrats exist to build and safeguard a fair, free and open society, in which we seek to balance the fundamental values of liberty, equality and community, and in which no one shall be enslaved by poverty, ignorance or conformity. We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience…¨ As a result, the purpose of this political movement is to give more freedom to people, to give them more opportunity to avoid poverty, and to ensure their well-being. The party defends civil liberties and social justice. Along with the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats are progressive political forces. Besides, the Liberal Democrats strongly believe in democracy. Former Liberal Democrat Leader Charles Kenny describes the Lib Dem`s values as: ¨freedom, justice, honesty. These sum what the Liberal Democrats stand for.¨ Therefore, the Liberal Democrats aim at promoting individual freedom, justice, and integrity in the United Kingdom.

                In addition, the Liberal Democratic Party was founded in 1981 by the merger between the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party. The Liberal Party was a political organization promoting social and classical liberalism. Likewise, the predecessor of this party is the Liberal Party created in the 19th century. This political organization made significant reforms in the United Kingdom. In 1906, the Liberals won a landslide victory in the national election with 397 out of 670 seats in the House of Commons. This new Liberal government made major reforms in the United Kingdom by introducing health insurance, unemployment insurance, and pensions for elderly workers; as a result, these were major progressive policies for this era. Besides, they passed the 1909 People`s Budget which taxed lands and wealthy people in order to make new social welfare programs. Nevertheless, the Liberals were deeply divided over the Great War. Even though, most Liberals were against the war, many thought that the Great War was all about defending liberal values. At the end of war, several liberals left the party and this political organization never got back in power. Pofessor Bogdanor tells, during a 2017 lecture at Gresham College, that the ¨Liberal Party buried itself with a kind of triumph because Britain as a whole is liberal. The liberal Party dies and indeed it seemed for a brief time as if the Liberal part would disappear.¨ Therefore, Britain became a very liberal nation in the 20th Century and the Liberal Party could not distinguish itself from other parties which were cherishing liberalism too. Therefore, several supporters decided to join parties with better chances of forming governments.

                On the other hand, the Social Democratic Party, founded in 1981, was a centrist party supporting a mixed economy for the nation. In 1981, leading Labour figures launched the Council for Social Democracy in which the Gang of Four outlines their centrist policies. These four leading politicians, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley, Williams, and Bill Rodgers, criticized the Labour Party as being influenced by hard left supporters. They defined the Social Democratic Party as a more centrist political organization that was independent from hard left interest groups.

                As a result, the Social Democratic Party and the Liberal Party merged together after an alliance of 8 years. The new party, the Liberal Democrats, set 8 key policies which are: democracy, internationalism, environment, and community. The Party defines itself as a pro European Party; the Liberal Democrats believes that the future is a British nation that is a full participant in European and global affairs. In sum, Liberal Democrats are citizens of the World. Liberals believe in free trade and internationalism because the latter inspires a greater sense of freedom. Professor Vernon Bogdanor reveals that for Liberals: ¨ free trade would lead to peace and international harmony while tariff barriers were a cause of conflict.¨ Therefore, liberals think that trade greatly contribute in making a better World.

                In the early moments of the merger, people were really supporting this new party that they think could make great reforms for Britain. Andy Beckett writes in July 2016 in The Guardian newspaper about the Liberal and SDP merger: ¨The SDP formed an alliance with the Liberals, who were also surging in popularity. In December 1981, a poll by Gallup put the alliance at 50.5%, a heady 27% ahead of both Labour and the Tories.¨ As result, British voters were enthusiastic about the 1981 merger in the United Kingdom. People were hopeful that a new party could replace the traditional Labour and Tory parties. Nevertheless, Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher won a landslide victory in the 1983 general elections with nearly 400 out 650 seats. The political alliance of the Liberals and the SDP only got 23 seats. As a result, the party`s popularity was lost about 2 years after the merger. This means that Liberal Democrats could not turn earlier popular support into votes. Besides, the Liberal Democrats only got tangible influence in the Nick Clegg and David Cameron coalition government. Nick Clegg, Liberal Democrat leader, became Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom along with four other Liberal Democrats in the Conservative cabinet of David Cameron. This 5 year coalition with the Tories was not good for the Liberal Democrats because they lost 49 seats in 2015; they only won 8 seats which results were seen as a disaster for the party. The main reason of this political failure was that the Liberal Democrats, in the Conservative government, supported the student fee hike and they lost the Alternative Vote Referendum to end the British first past the post system. The 2011 AV referendum had been rejected by British voters; therefore, this was seen as a failure for the Liberal Democrats. The Liberal Democrats became a party of unpopular measure. In 2019, they try to rebuild their support through their pledge to cancel Brexit.

                Above and beyond, the Liberal Democrats made several mistakes that made them lose elections over time. For instance, they should have not got into an uneasy alliance with the Conservatives in the 2010s. Professor Bogdanor says: ¨the Liberal Democrats alienated a social base…a social base of middle-class public service professionals and students. The Liberal Democrat 2010 manifesto favours promised the abolition of student fees and Liberal Democrat MPs gave a personal pledge in support of this promise, but in the event, the Conservative Liberal Democrat coalition tripled student fees.¨ Therefore, the greed for power pushed the Liberal Democrats, under the leadership of Nick Clegg, to participate in a coalition government that did not truly reflected party`s values and aspirations. The Tories were against the main principles advocated by the Liberal Democrats. The party should have just supported the Tories on a case by case basis in Parliament. Also, Liberals and Social Democrats do not fit together because both ideologies are different. For instance, Professor Bogdanor argues that: ¨what seems clear to me is that liberalism and social democracy are bottomed different and possibly incompatible philosophies, the one favoring the dispersal of power limiting the size of the state and dispersing it territorially, the other legitimizing strong and centralized government.¨ This means that Liberals want to empower people while Social Democrats want people rely on government through social programs made by a very strong and centralized government. As a result, the union between the Liberals and the Social Democrats do not work so well. They fail to implement policies pleasing supports of both backgrounds in the Clegg Cameron coalition government in the 2010s. As well, the Social Democrats have failed to form a government through a general election.

                In addition, the Liberal Democrats promised to cancel Brexit if they form a majority government in the 2019 generation election. On the other hand, if the Lib Dems get a minority government, they will try to have a second referendum on Brexit. They claim that remaining in the European Union would give Britain an extra £50 billion (CDN $86 billion) in revenues. Consequently, they want to invest with these new funds £29 billion (CDN $50 billion) in education and childcare, £6.2 billion (CDN $10.7 billion) to help poor people, £7.5 billion (CDN $13 billion) in healthcare, £6.8 billion (CDN $11.8 billion) for devolved regions, and £12.3 billion (CDN $21 billion) as other spending. Moreover, the Liberal Democrats want to legalize cannabis in order to get an extra £1.5 billion (CDN $2.6 billion) in tax revenues. The total British government revenue was £810 billion (CDN $1.5 trillion) in 2018 according to Her Majesty`s Treasury. Moreover, the Liberal Democrats pledge to fight climate change by reaching 80% renewable energy by 2030. They also will improve energy efficiency of homes. Besides, The Liberal Democrats will defend international organizations because they believing in internationalism rather than local nationalism. The Liberal Democrats think that the United Kingdom must work with other nations in order to get positive change for the nation.

                Finally, this union between Liberals and Social Democrats is incompatible because it fails to please every faction of the party. One of the best examples of this inability to please both groups was during the Cameron Clegg coalition government. Nick Clegg had to make some comprises with the Tories, but lost support from party members. The Liberal Democrat MPs could not defend the party`s principles. They also made a very unpopular choice to have a referendum to reform the voting system. This would have been usually very popular among Social Democrats, but it turned out to be a great failure. However, they often win in local elections, but they seem to have no purpose on the national level. For instance, they got 700 new council seats in the 2019 English local elections. The Liberal Democrats used their position on Brexit in order to differentiate themselves from other liberal and social democratic parties on the national level. In sum, the Liberal Democrats should try to unite the Liberals together rather than trying to unite both the Liberals and the Social Democrats together because most Social Democrats vote for the Labour Party. Therefore, the Liberal Democrats have better chances to get back the Liberals from other parties. They must show the voters that they can form a government. They should modernize the party like Tony Blair did with his ¨New Labour¨ approach.  Nevertheless, they had a great platform in the 2019 general election because they had a clear stance on Brexit which is to cancel Brexit. This is in contrast to the Labour Party that has no a clear stance on this 2019 issue.


December 12, 2019

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Yannick B. Vallée
By Yannick B. Vallee

Yannick B. Vallee is a political scientist who recently graduated from Bishop’s University (Quebec, Canada) in the BA program of political science. He also has a college degree of Business Administration with a specialization in marketing. Nowadays,  he specializes in American, Canadian... (Read next)

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