Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

So Who Was the Liberal Party’s Real Daddy?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2009

Lord PalmerstonA hundred and fifty years ago, about 280 British MPs gathered at Willis’s Rooms in King Street, St James’s, London, to discuss uniting to oppose the continuation in office of the then Tory Prime Minister, Lord Derby. The majority of Members present were Whigs, but there were also Radicals like John Bright and Peelite Tories at this memorable occasion — though not, interestingly, the celebrated Peelite Tory William Gladstone, who would go on to be the champion of Victorian Liberalism. Gladstone’s government starting in 1868 is often cited as giving birth to Liberal England, but  as Professor Anthony Howe from the University of East Anglia argued in a drily witty keynote speech at a National Liberal Club dinner this evening, the Willis’s Rooms’ occasion nine year’s earlier was the party’s conception — hence the Liberal Democrat History Group’s decision to hold the 150th anniversary event this summer, in collaboration with the NLC. The President of the Liberal Democrat History Group, Lord (William) Wallace of Saltaire compered the evening, with turns by Liberal Democrat Party president, Baroness (Ros) Scott, and former Liberal Party leader, Lord (David) Steel. Two other former party (SDP and Liberal Democrat) leaders. Lord (Bob) Maclennan and Charles Kennedy, MP, were in attendance.

As a well informed questioner pointed out, the term ‘Liberal’ really came into political currency in Spain earlier in the 19th century. Moreover, the aristocratic Radical Lord John Russell used the term Liberal Party a whole 20 years before the Willis’s Rooms conclave. But according to Professor Howe’s analysis, full of fascinating detail and cheeky asides, Russell’s paternity of the party was denied by the inferiority of his wife’s salons compared with those of the wife of Viscount (Henry) Palmerston (pictured above), the conservative renegade Irish Tory, who nonetheless had flashes of radical zeal and became the first ‘Liberal’ Prime Minister when he assumed office for a second time. Confused? One might well be. And the young Queen Victoria’s diaries suggest she got fatigued by the ins and outs of what some of the Old Men of British politics were up to. But the seeds of British Liberalism were indeed sown that summer’s evening in 1859 and the plants they brought forth have grown and mutated — narrowly surviving extinction in the years after the Second World Wat — to blossom once again as the hybrid Liberal Democrat Party of today.



3 Responses to “So Who Was the Liberal Party’s Real Daddy?”

  1. john oakes said

    Absolutely -let’s hear it for good old Gunboat Pam! Although I think his ” Civis Romanus sum” speech would be considered a little too strong by the present party……..

  2. Dominic Black said

    Who was the father of the Libeal Party is interesting as is any parentage. However, the parentage of the ideals behind the Liberal Party is surely far more interesting still. One name that should not be forgotten as a contributor to these ideals is John Bright (MP 1843-57 and 1858-85 and 1886-89). Few who listened to and supported his Angel of Death’ speech would not be shocked to the core by todays Liberal MPs. The Party might today be called Liberal Democrat but adding a word to the title is no excuse for supporting American imperialism especially not from those who opposed what they saw as British imperialism in Suez. Iraq and Afghanistan are not countries that shoud be occupied byBritish troops any more than Iran was in 1953. These are all aspects of American imperialism. Saying that we are in Afghanistan to make life ‘better’ for the Afghans is imposing our world view on another country and therefore that is also imperialism. Perhaps it is fear that leads Liberal Democrat MPs to fail to take the correct course in these matters. John Bright lost his seat in 1857 because of his opposition to the Crimean War. If that is the case then todays successors to Bright are unworthy of filling his shoes. Afghanistan and Iraq are not countries which Britain should be supporting military involvement in at all. Oman is our only real ally in the Iraq region and there are British military personnel in both Oman and Cyprus all the time. The safety of these has been threatened by the action in Iraq. America does not give a damn about this. The USA has never and will never support Britain in war unless an American dies first so the lives of British forces in Oman and Cyprus is not going to bother them at all. It is time that the Liberal Democrats stood up for a policy that is based both on justice and British interest. A policy that was motivated by these would not be likely to entail support for the USA but what should motivate Liberal Democrat MPs far more is making John Bright proud and this would be the result of such a policy.

  3. Dominic Black said

    The closing comments of this article tlak about British Liberalism blossoming in today’s Liberal Democrats. It would be nice to think so as anyone who read Alan Paton’s piece ‘if Liberalism died’. However, it might really be time to think that the Party of John Bright and David Lloyd George really is dead when the opposition to unjust wars not in British interests that these two were the leading exponents of is no longer practised by their parliamentary successors. I refer not to British wars which are unjust but to the love of American imperialism practised and supported by all three parliamentary Parties. There should be no British military involvement in Afghanistan or Iraq. The lack of opposition to these occupations is something which every Liberal should mourn. With Afghanistan it should be noted that Britain no longer rules India; this was the justification for the three British-Afghan wars between 1839-1919. There has been no justification for British invasion of Afghanistan since Indian independence in 1948. This has not changed at all. If British Liberals are to be the successors of their illustrious predecessors then they should have the guts and intelligence of these predecessors and start opposing wars based on American imperialism.

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