Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Liberal Democrat History Group’

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.

Link: www.liberalhistory.org.uk

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Remembering the Lib-Lab Pact

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 14th July, 2008

The Lib-Lab Pact of 1977-1978 got an almost uniformly bad press at the time and the short-term electoral consequences for the Liberal Party were pretty dire. During the 18 months or so of the pact’s existence, the Liberal vote plummeted in local elections and parliamentary by-elections, as if in protest at David Steel’s baker’s dozen of MPs keeping Jim Callaghan’s government in power. Coalition politics might have been the norm on the continent for a long time, but the British public, it would appear, weren’t ready for it. Some Liberal Party members were pretty peeved too, not least because David failed to win in return the concession from the government to have a PR system for elections to the first directly-elected European Parliament in 1979. Had Jim Callaghan not wobbled, and gone for an election in the autumn of 1978, then things might have been different, of course. But he played cautious and the following May Mrs Thatcher swept into power. The rest, as they say, is history.

Earlier this evening, at a meeting of the Liberal Democrat History Group in the National Liberal Club, the now ennobled David Steel and his colleagues in the House of Lords, Tom McNally (30 years ago, the Head of Callaghan’s Political Office in 10 Downing Street, but now Leader of the LibDems in the House of Lords) and Geoff Tordoff (Chairman of the Liberal Party at the time) joined psephologist (and the other day winner of a council by-election in Canterbury) Michael Steed recalling the Lib-Lab Agreement (as it was more properly termed). With hindsight, the episode can maybe be viewed more sympathetically and it was probably a step in the direction of the ‘reliagnment of British politics’ that David Steel would try a few years later with the SDP’s Gang of Four, Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers. They did not break the mould of British politics then, as they had hoped (partly because of the Falklands War). But the two-party political system that dominated so much of the 20th century was over-turned.

Link: www.liberalhistory.org.uk

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Celebrating the Liberal Revival

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 14th June, 2008

It was a joy to take a break from work and active political campaigning today, in order to attend a seminar on ‘Torrington 58: Liberal survival and revival 1958-1979’ at the London School of Economics (LSE). Supported by the Scurrah Wainwright Charity and the Liberal Democrat History Group, the event served up a scintillating array of speakers, including Lords Navnit Dholakia, William Wallace, Tony Greaves and Archy Kirkwood, as well as former MP Michael Meadowcroft and the Northern Editor of the ‘Guardian’, Martin Wainwright. The title was cheekily misleading, as there was actually very little about the Torrington by-election, which propelled Mark Bonham-Carter briefly into the House of Commons 50 years ago. But there was lots of fascinating historical material and analysis, as well as many delicious anectodes, about how the Liberal Party escaped extinction and revived, albeit in fits and starts.

I hadn’t realised until today that the LSE holds a fine collection of Liberal/Liberal Democrat documentation in its archives, including the papers of Paddy Ashdown, William Beverdige, Nancy Seear, David Steel and Richard Wainwright et al. The catalogue can be found at: http://archives.lse.ac.uk .

Links: www.wainwrighttrusts.org.uk www.liberalhistory.org.uk

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