Liberalism in the United Kingdom

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This article gives an overview of liberalism in the United Kingdom. It is limited to liberal parties with substantial support, mainly proved by having had a representation in parliament. The sign ⇒ means a reference to another party in that scheme. For inclusion in this scheme it isn't necessary so that parties labeled themselves as a liberal party.



In the United Kingdom, the word "liberalism" can have any of several meanings. Scholars still use the term to refer to classical liberalism; the term also can mean economic liberalism or neoliberalism; it can simply refer to the politics of the Liberal Democrat party; it can have the imported U.S. meaning, including the derogatory usage by conservatives. However, the derogatory connotation is weaker in the UK than in the U.S., and social liberals from both the left- and right-wing continue to use "liberal" and "illiberal" to describe themselves and their opponents, respectively.

Historically, the term referred to the broad left-wing political alliance of the nineteenth century, formed by Whigs, Peelites, and radicals. This alliance, which developed into the Liberal Party, dominated politics for much of the reign of Queen Victoria and during the years before World War I.

British liberalism is now organized mainly in the left of centre liberal Liberal Democrats (member LI, ELDR). The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland (member LI, ELDR) is their counterpart in Northern Ireland.

The Conservative Party (UK) is the closest of the three major parties to classical liberalism, and its leaders, most notably Margaret Thatcher, have long espoused the reduction of state powers, especially in economic spheres. In Northern Ireland, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Democratic Unionist Party, both of which were formerly part of the Conservative umbrella, are considered by most to be notably free market and individualist. Veritas and the United Kingdom Independence Party are both committed to repealing statist legislation passed in recent years.

Evolution of organised liberalism

Emerging primarily from the Whigs of the nineteenth century, the Liberal Party was a major force in pre-World War I politics. Their main political rivals was the Conservative (Tory) Party.

After the War, their influence was undermined by the rise of socialism in the form of Labour Party, who displaced the Liberals to become the party of progressive and reformist tendencies.

The doctrine of the party evolved a lot throughout history, matching concerns of the day. For historical details, see the article about Whiggism.

In the latter half of the 20th century, the party merged with the Social Democratic Party to become the Liberal Democrats. As a result, some commentators say that the party has, at least on a national level, moved left into social democracy. (Though members often claim that the right-left spectrum is inadequate in a post-Cold War and post-ideological Britain.) The Liberal Democrats are a main member of the European Liberal Democratic and Reform Party and the Liberal International.

Specifically Liberal policies that remain important to the party include support for free trade (albeit with heavy regulation) and strong civil liberties.

Notable Liberal Prime Ministers include:

The timeline

Great Britain


  • 1647: The proto-liberal Levellers are formed
  • 1653: The Levellers disappeared

From Whigs to Liberal Democrats

  • 1681: The Whigs constituted themselves
  • 1859: The Whigs merged with the ⇒ Peelites and ⇒ Radicals into the Liberal Party
  • 1886: A faction seceded as the ⇒ Liberal Unionist Party
  • 1918: The party fell apart into the Coalition Liberals and the ⇒ Independent Liberals (1918)
  • 1922: The Coalition Liberals renamed themselves in National Liberals
  • 1923: The National Liberals and the ⇒ Independent Liberals rejoined into the Liberal Party
  • 1931: A faction formed the ⇒ Liberal National Party; Another faction centred on Lloyd George and his family became ⇒ Independent Liberals (1931)
  • 1935: Lloyd George's Independent Liberals rejoined with the rest of the Liberal Party
  • 1988: The Liberal Party merged with Social Democratic Party into present-day Liberal Democrats, the new ⇒ Liberal Party seceded
  • 2002: A splinter group of the Conservative Party, Pro-Euro Conservative Party merges into Liberal Democrats.


  • 1830s: The Radicals became active and allied themselves with the ⇒ Whigs
  • 1859: The Radicals merged into the new ⇒ Liberal Party


  • 1840s: The Peelites seceded from the Tories
  • 1859: The Peelites merged into the new ⇒ Liberal Party

Liberal Unionist Party

Independent Liberals (1918)

Independent Liberals 1

  • 1918: A faction of the ⇒ Liberal Party formed the Independent Liberals
  • 1923: The Independent Liberals rejoined the ⇒ Liberal Party

Liberal National Party / National Liberal Party

  • 1931: A moderate faction of the ⇒ Liberal Party formed the Liberal National Party
  • 1947: The LNP is renamed National Liberal Party and formally merges with the Conservative Party; however some MPs and candidates continue to use the National Liberal label (and variants thereof) for the next twenty years
  • 1966: The last self-identified National Liberals end the use of the title and disappear into the Conservative Party

Independent Liberals (1931)

  • 1931: A faction formed the ⇒ Liberal National Party; Another faction centred on Lloyd George and his family became Independent Liberals
  • 1935: Lloyd George's Independent Liberals rejoined with the rest of the Liberal Party

Liberal Party

  • 1988: A faction of the old ⇒ Liberal party formed the new Liberal Party

Northern Ireland

Alliance Party of Northern Ireland

  • 1969: The Alliance Party of Northern Ireland is formed
  • 1982: The Liberal Party fields its last candidate in a Northern Ireland election and subsequently endorses Alliance candidates instead.

Liberal leaders

Liberal thinkers

In the Contributions to liberal theory the following British thinkers are included:



See also


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