Liberalism and the Liberal Democrats

Liberalism in the UK: The Liberal Democrats 1988-2020


Page last updated: 25 June 2020

Click here for a range of useful Government and Politics Resources and specifically click here and scroll down to podcasts 20 and 33-44 for materials on the Liberal Democrats and  the ideology of Liberalism.

[All from the YouTube Channel of Alan History Nerd]


I hope to update this document fairly soon. Meanwhile I hope that you will find the following recently added links useful. There are further updates at the end of this document dealing with the results of the AV Referendum, the overall performance of the Liberal Democrats in 2011 and the resignation of Chris Huhne on Feb 3rd 2012  and most recently on Feb 8th 2012 the formation of Liberal Left [Liberals opposed to the Coalition].


The Guardian on Vince Cable and Capitalism

The BBC on Orange Book Liberalism and Social Liberalism


The BBC on Orange Book Liberalism

Click here for BBC's Analysis on The Orange Book and the Liberal Democrats and here for a critique of the programme from a well informed Liberal Democrat supporter.  September 2020

The Coalition 2010-2011: [1]   [BBC]

The Coalition 2010-2011: [2]   [BBC]


Varieties of Liberalism


In order to analyse the influences of liberal ideology on the development of the Liberal Democrats we must distinguish among the different variants of liberalism.  It may be suggested that the Liberal Democrats’ defence of individual liberties and their acceptance of important aspects of the Thatcherite economic legacy may be connected to classical and neo-liberal ideological principles while other economic and social policies have been influenced by the principles of social liberalism.


Liberal Democrats and a Pact with New Labour?


The Liberal Democrats were formed out of a merger of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party in 1988. The first leader of the Liberal Democrats, Paddy Ashdown, led the party between 1988 and 1999 and his long term political strategy  was to position the Liberal Democrats fairly close to the Labour Party in ideological and policy terms  and to propose a pact between the Liberal Democrats and Labour in order  to oust the Conservatives from government in exchange for which Labour was to promise to legislate in favour of proportional representation which would almost inevitably increase the representation of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Commons.


Liberal Democrat and Economic and Social Policy: the importance of Social Liberalism


However in practice all of this came to naught, not least because Labour’s landslide General Election victory in 1997 but during the late 1990s and early 2000s the Liberal Democrats did develop proposals to increase rates of income taxation in order to fund improvements in the state education and health services which in some respects placed them to the left of the Labour Party on economic and social policy. Thus although neither Labour nor the Liberal Democrats were strongly committed to economic equality the Liberal Democrats now seemed marginally more egalitarian than Labour.


In terms of ideological traditions the influence of social liberalism was clear in that the Liberal Democrats were recognizing the importance of positive liberty [the liberty of individuals to develop their talents to the full] and arguing for some expansion of the public services in order to promote to equality of opportunity. In this respect the Liberal Democrats were influenced also to some extent by the theories of distributive justice proposed by John Rawls [1921-2002] in the 1970s.


John Rawls supported some considerable redistribution of income to the poor in order to promote equality of opportunity but argued that excessive egalitarianism would restrict incentives and economic growth and reduce the living standards of the poor people that it is supposed to help. Insofar as the Liberal Democrats accept the Rawlsian position they are ideologically close to Labour Party social democrats on the issue of economic or distributional justice.


Liberal Democrats and Constitutional Reform


However within the Liberal Democrats there are also those who could be said to be influenced slightly more by the ideology of classical liberalism emphasizing what they saw as the disadvantages of excessive centralization of government services. It was these Liberal Democrats who sympathized with the ideas of the so-called Orange Book published in 2004, ideas which the then leader of the Liberal Democrats Charles Kennedy called interesting but not necessarily likely to have a major impact on Liberal Democrat party policy.


The Liberal Democrats and Internationalism.


The Liberal Democrats have always presented themselves as a strongly internationalist party: in their 2005 General Election Manifesto they strongly criticized the USA/UK invasion of Iraq not least because of lack of support for invasion by the United Nations organization; they support meaningful reform of the Un so that it can play a greater role in international affairs and also believe that the UK has an important role to play in a reformed European Union.


Charles Kennedy: Liberal Democrat Party Leader 1999-2006


Charles Kennedy’s leadership of the Liberal Democrats brought considerable electoral success, not least perhaps because of the Liberal Democrats, principled opposition to the Iraq war but there were increasing rumours that Charles Kennedy had serious problems with excessive alcohol consumption and he was obliged to resign from the leadership in early 2006 to be replaced by Sir Menzies Campbell. Supporters of the Orange Book faction within the Liberal Democrats would now hope for a greater influence over Liberal Democrat party policy. Information on the change of leadership is provided in the following textbook extract. [The extract is rather long but I have highlighted the relevant points which you would probably need to know to answer a question on liberalism in the UK.]


Sir Menzies Campbell Becomes Leader March 2006…but only until December 2007


Update 2: March 2006 - Election of new leader of the Liberal Democrats

Following the messy forced resignation of leader Charles Kennedy on January 8 th, 2006 some Liberal Democrat MPs envisaged a ‘coronation’ for his respected deputy, Sir Menzies (Ming) Campbell, who had the support of most of the parliamentary party. Yet MPs lacked the power to decide the issue. Alone among the big parties it is solely ordinary party members of the Liberal Democrats who elect their party leader. Thus quite possibly party members might choose a leader who was not the first choice of the parliamentary party, one reason why some MPs hoped an election might be avoided. Yet it was also clear that a party that always prided itself on its internal democracy could hardly duck a contest, particularly after the Conservative Party’s successful leadership election that had boosted the main opposition party’s poll ratings. Thus Campbell was soon faced with three rivals, the party’s President, Simon Hughes, popular with the grass roots, Mark Oaten, then Home Affair’s spokesperson, and the virtually unknown Chris Huhne, a former MEP who had only been elected to Westminster for nine months.

Whereas the Conservative leadership election had resulted in much largely favourable publicity for the party, the Liberal Democrat contest began disastrously. Mark Oaten was forced to give up his own candidacy after newspaper revelations that he had paid for sex with a rent boy, while Simon Hughes’ campaign was damaged when he was constrained to admit to gay relationships that he had previously denied. The ‘outing’ of Hughes in a society that has come to accept same sex relationships might not have been so damaging had it not been for his previous denials. Newspapers also recalled the successful but notably homophobic campaign that had been conducted on behalf of Simon Hughes against the gay Labour candidate Peter Tatchell in a by-election at Bermondsey in 1983. Hughes, however, did not feel obliged to retire from the contest, and in the longer run the revelations perhaps did him little harm among party members or the wider public. Yet the initial impact of the scandals certainly seemed to damage a party already weakened by the circumstances of Kennedy’s resignation, and party members were despondent as poll ratings plummeted. Some pundits predicted a continuing squeeze on the Liberal Democrats and a return to traditional two party politics. (David Cameron had already proclaimed his own ‘liberal’ credentials in a provocative bid for support from former Liberal Democrats).

Sir Menzies Campbell had been the clear front-runner as a respected deputy leader who had gained public prominence from his principled stand against the Iraq War as the party’s foreign affairs spokesperson. Yet his failure to make an impact as acting leader at Prime Minister’s Questions, and his lack-lustre performance in debates and interviews raised question-marks against his age (64). Some doubted whether he was sufficiently energetic or dynamic to take on Blair (or presumably Brown later on) and the youthful David Cameron. Simon Hughes had campaigned more effectively than some of his colleagues had expected, but the surprise package in the leadership contest proved to be the young rank outsider, Chris Huhne, who soon won admiring support from party members. Bookies, recalling how the ‘outsider’ David Cameron had eventually defeated the long-time front-runner David Davies by a substantial margin in the Conservative election, made Chris Huhne the favourite.

Yet the Liberal Democrats, and perhaps Campbell too, received a much-needed boost in the midst of the leadership campaign. Against most expectations the Liberal Democrats captured the previously safe Labour seat of Dunfermline and West Fife, held on February 9 th, with a massive swing of over 16%. Neither Cameron’s Conservatives nor the Scottish Nationalist made any impact. Despite a month of appalling publicity, the party had demonstrated it was still a potent threat at the polls. Campbell (along with former leader Charles Kennedy) had taken a prominent role in the by-election campaign, as had Gordon Brown (MP for a neighbouring constituency) on the Labour side. The significance of the result for the future electoral prospects of Campbell and Brown was not lost on commentators.

However, both Huhne and Hughes continued to campaign strongly, and the eventual result was something of a surprise. Menzies Campbell, the early front-runner, won fairly comfortably. The result was as follows:

First round Second round
Sir Menzies Campbell 23,264 29,697 (58%)
Chris Huhne 16,691 21,628 (42%)
Simon Hughes 12,081 -

Turnout was 52,036 (72% of some 73,000 party members)

In the end the party could be well-satisfied. There was a clear winner on a high turnout, but the other candidates had not been humiliated, and immediately declared their full support for the new leader, as did former leader Charles Kennedy. An apparently united party had emerged from two months of turmoil and some bad publicity in good health, its poll ratings restored to the levels of 2005. However, critics questioned whether the leadership campaign had settled the future direction of the party. Some party activists feared that Campbell would shift the party to the right and the economic liberals would gain influence. Others worried about the tactics a Campbell-led party would pursue in the event of a hung parliament. Would it prop up a Labour government (as had the Liberals in 1977-8) or would it put David Cameron in Downing Street?


In any case as we shall see Sir Menzies Campbell would not last long as leader….only until December 2007.


Liberal Democrats and the Power of the centralised State


It may be argued that the contemporary Liberal Democrats are to some extent drawing on classical liberal principles in their critique of what they consider to be the excessive powers of the centralized state and their support for a range of important constitutional reforms.


Thus the Liberal Democrats [and others] argue that the UK political system is dominated by a so-called  “Elective Dictatorship” Given the existence of the FPTP [first past the post] electoral system governments can be elected with a secure parliamentary majority with much less than 50% of the total vote. Then, once elected, governments will secure the passage of their legislation relatively easily because MPs are likely to vote along party lines. Governments can be defeated in the House of Lords but the Government can reverse such defeats in the House of Commons although the House of Lords can delay government legislation by up to one year under the terms of the 1949 Parliament Act. Furthermore it has been argued that the centralized Westminster government has traditionally taken decisions without due regard to the wishes of N.Irish, Scottish and Welsh citizens and that it has also undermined the role of local government in the political process.


In order to undermine the dominance of “Elective Dictatorship” Liberal Democrats have argued for the replacement of the FPTP electoral system via some form of PR which would be likely to generate some form of coalition government [in which a larger Liberal Democrat party would be likely to be one of the partners given that a Conservative-Labour coalition can hardly be imagined].According to Liberal Democrats the political system would thereby become more democratic and more efficient although critics argue that  coalition government might turn out to be weak , indecisive government. Liberal Democrats have also proposed reform of the House of Lords, replacing hereditary peers and appointed life peers by a wholly elected second chamber; they have supported the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law; they have supported a Freedom of Information Act so that governments might be held more effectively to account for their actions; and they have supported referenda and devolution as a means by which politics can be brought closer to the people. Labour Governments have not introduced proportional representation for the Westminster elections but they have introduced several of the other reforms proposed by Liberal Democrats although not necessarily in the exact form that Liberal Democrats have favoured.


Thus Liberal Democrats have argued that Labour’s Freedom of Information Act is too limited; that Scottish and Welsh Assemblies should have greater tax raising powers and that Labour governments are unlikely to introduce a fully elected second chamber although MPs have recently voted in favour of this option and in favour of the option of an 80% elected second chamber.


Nick Clegg Becomes Leader of the Liberal Democrats: December 2007


By the autumn of 2007 there were increasing criticisms of Sir Menzies Campbell’s leadership and he too felt obliged to resign. Nick Clegg became the new leader of the Liberal Democrats in December 2007.Here is another textbook extract with the main points highlighted.


The Liberal Democrats second leadership election in less than two years.

Campbell had earned the respect of all parties in the Commons as his party’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson and Deputy Party Leader. He seemed the obvious choice as Kennedy’s successor, with all the qualities necessary, bar one, youth. He was 64, not old by the standard of many former party leaders and Prime Ministers. However, the Liberals and Liberal Democrats had boasted a series of young or at least young looking leaders (Grimond, Thorpe, Steel, Ashdown, Kennedy). Campbell unfortunately looked rather older than he was. He was mercilessly portrayed by the media as a bumbling old gaffer. Thus a man who had long been universally respected in the House of Commons became almost a figure of fun on the national stage.

He might have survived for longer had the fates been kinder. Had there been an election in the autumn of 2007, as many expected, Campbell would have led his party into the contest - there would have been no time for a challenge and a new leadership election. Who know what would have happened then? He may have proved an effective campaigner, and his party might have performed better than expected, perhaps well enough to hold the balance of power. A triumphant Campbell might have brought his leading colleagues into government, with the Foreign Office his own political prize. As it was, Campbell was the first and biggest victim of Gordon Brown’s ‘election that never was’. With a General Election seemingly postponed to 2009 or even 2010, there was now time for the Liberal Democrats to organise another leadership election.

The Liberal Democrat leadership election of 2007

The new leadership contest attracted much less media and public interest than its predecessor. There were no salacious stories to interest the popular press. Some serious political commentators had effectively written off the Liberal Democrats as an irrelevance. The two candidates, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, were both relatively youthful, and from a similar social and educational background. Nor were there significant policy differences between them. Clegg was the frontrunner, although Huhne had polled better than expected when he had stood against Campbell in 2006. He campaigned more vigorously, and in the end ran Clegg very close, with only 511 votes (just above 1% of the total vote) separating the two candidates. The narrowness of the victory will only matter if Nick Clegg subsequently runs into trouble as leader. His major problem is that most voters still cannot identify him.


With a new Labour Prime Minister less personally associated with the Iraq war and the Bush alliance, there is less political mileage in these issues. Meanwhile the Liberal Democrats face a re-energised Conservative party under David Cameron, who has made a strong pitch over green issues that the Lib Dems had sought to make their own. It will be difficult for the party to carve out a distinctive political space for itself. The dominant strand British Liberalism from the early 20th century onwards has what is sometimes described as social liberalism rather than the free market liberalism of the 19th century still favoured by many liberals around the world. More recently, market liberalism has been actively promoted by a group within the party, including David Laws, Vincent Cable and new leader Nick Clegg, although this involves more a shift in emphasis rather than a fundamental ideological repositioning (British Politics, 2006, 92-4). In his first few weeks as leader Clegg has attacked what he describes as the ‘surveillance state’, which relates to familiar liberal themes of individual freedom, but it remains to be seen whether this resonates with the wider public.

Opinion polls continue to be discouraging, suggesting that the Liberal Democrats will do well to match their 2005 performance when an election is finally called. Yet the party has often benefited from the publicity of an election campaign and may do better than some are predicting. Yet even if they lose votes and seats, they could still end up holding the balance of power in the next Parliament.

Holding the balance of power could involve risks as well as opportunities. If they join a coalition government they will upset some erstwhile supporters, depending on which of the two major parties they put into power, and compromise their independence. Moreover, experience of the Lab-Lib Dem coalition in Scotland (1999-2007) suggests that junior coalition partners are blamed for unpopular decisions without receiving much credit for any government success. Yet if the Liberal Democrats decline to join a coalition, and prefer to judge a minority government on individual issues, they risk accusations of cowardice and irrelevance. However, they might be able to extract electoral reform as a condition for support, which, more than anything else, would help to consolidate their position as a significant third force in British politics.

The Liberal Democrats and Civil Liberties

The Liberal Democrats have been strong critics of the proposed introduction of Identity Cards expressed concerns about the expansion of CCTV on the grounds that both could undermine individual privacy. Their opposition to the government proposals to extend the permitted detention without trial of terrorist suspects from 28 to 42 days may be linked to traditional classical liberal views as to relationships between individual liberty and social order.

In seeking to balance negative individual liberty against the necessity for the state to safeguard the social order [against terrorist attacks in this case] the Liberal Democrats [and others] have opposed the bill for several reasons. Thus they claim that the bill itself will undermine the traditional liberal democratic values which the UK has always claimed to support; that there is no compelling evidence that the proposed increased detention period is necessary to safeguard the social order; that the safeguards of individual liberty included in the bill would be unworkable in practice; and that the detention clauses would alienate the Muslim community whose continuing  support is essential if terrorist attacks are to be prevented. The Labour Government has nevertheless rejected these arguments and claims that the new provisions are essential if future terrorist attacks are to be prevented.

It has been argued that the important debate surrounding relationships between national security and individual liberty have to some extent been overshadowed as Labour has used the debate partly in order to present Gordon Brown as a “strong leader who is tough on terrorism” while the Conservatives simply wished to embarrass Gordon Brown on civil liberties. The reasons behind David Davis’ resignation from his position as Shadow Home Secretary are also subject to competing interpretations but they cannot be pursued here.

Some Additional Links and Information on the Liberal Democrats and the 2010 General Election; Added Jan 25th 2012

Between 2005 and 2010 the Liberal Democrats were led by Charles Kennedy [1999- 7thJan 2006] , Sir Menzies Campbell [ 7th Jan 2006- 2March 2006 as interim leader and 2 March 2006-15th Oct 2007 as elected leader], Vince Cable [15th Oct 2007-18 Dec 2007 interim leader]  and Nick Clegg [18Dec 2007--]. Charles Kennedy was obliged to resign as a result of concerns within the Party surrounding his alcohol consumption levels and perceptions that he was insufficiently proactive in relation to future policy development. He was replaced by Sir Menzies Campbell [who had defeated Chris Huhne in the Party leadership contest] but although Campbell was widely respected for his knowledge of foreign policy and in particular for his effective presentation of the case against UK involvement in the invasion of Iraq he did not take well to the leadership role and once it became clear that there would be no General Election in late 2007  pressure built up within the party for Sir Menzies Campbell to resign in favour of a younger man which he soon did . In a close leadership election contest Nick Clegg narrowly defeated Chris Huhne for the Party leadership.

Click here for the resignation of Charles Kennedy and the Election of Sir Menzies Campbell.

Click here for the resignation of Sir Menzies Campbell

Click here for Vince Cable's brief tenure as acting Leader

Click here for the election of Nick Clegg

Click here for 21 items on the Liberal Democrats from the Guardian's "The Election Day by Day " archive

It has been argued that from 2005 onwards there have been important signs of the ideological repositioning of the Liberal Democratic Party as a result of the increasing influence in the higher echelons of the party of Liberal Democrat MPs closely associated with so-called "Orange Book Liberalism" which implied a rather greater support for the economic principles of free market liberalism than had existed in the Liberal Democrat party under the leadership of Charles Kennedy, who , after all, had been a member of the Social Democratic Party [SDP] and espoused greater support for the kind of social liberalism which supported the active intervention  of the state in the organisation of the economy. The nature  of Orange Book Liberalism is analysed in detail in the following  sources and it is likely that the Increasing commitment of senior Liberal Democrats to these principles would have facilitated the negotiation of the eventual post-election Coalition Agreement with the Conservatives . However we may only speculate as to what proportion of eventual Liberal Democrat voters were familiar with the details of the ideological differences between Orange Book Liberals and Social Liberals which exist within the Liberal Democrats

Click here for BBC's Analysis on The Orange Book and the Liberal Democrats for a critique of the programme from a well informed Liberal Democrat supporter.

Opinion poll data during the leadership of Nick Clegg suggest that although his own personal ratings as leader did improve gradually in 2008 and 2009 [as did those of Liberal Democrats' Economics spokesperson Vince Cable] these higher personal poll ratings  did not translate into significantly improved poll ratings for the Liberal Democrats as a whole  and as the General Election approached the polls suggested that the Liberal Democrats were unlikely to improve upon the level of support which they had gained in the 2005 General Election and they may well have been fearful that in what was likely to be a close General Election their  vote might be squeezed even further .

Nick Clegg and the Leadership Debates

However Nick Clegg's effective performance  especially in the first of the three televised leadership debates seemed for a few days as if it might lead to a significant increase in Liberal Democrat support which would transform the result of the General Election. At this point in the General Election campaign several separate opinion polls were published almost every day and you may click on the UK Polling Report data below to see the results of all of the opinion polls during the campaign.

They show that the First Debate led to a substantial increase in the poll ratings of the Liberal Democrats which if anything increased in the following few days such that whereas one poll on April 15th had the party ratings as 37 [Con], 31 [Lab] and 22 [Lib Dem] a poll on April 16th had the ratings as 33 [Con], 28 [Lab] and 30 [Lib Dem] and a poll on April 20th had the ratings as 31 [Con}, 26 {Lab] and 34 [Lib Dem]. The Lib Dem Poll ratings did then begin to decline slowly although they remained consistently ahead of Labour until 27th April and their poll rating reached 30 for the last time on May 1st .

Nick Clegg's individual poll ratings had similarly increased as a result of his strong performance in the first debate  and the success of Nick Clegg  and the resultant transformation of the polls alarmed both of the main parties and led to the orchestration in the Conservative Press of a series of anti- Liberal Democrat editorials [often targeted particularly on the dangers of a Hung Parliament and the threats of electoral reform] as well as articles personally critical of Nick Clegg. Furthermore the Conservative Party itself organised a "Spoof" party Political Broadcast designed to emphasise the weaknesses[ according to Conservatives] of Proportional Representation

The Poll ratings of the Liberal Democrats and of Nick Clegg, although they remained at historically high levels, did decline gradually as Election day approached. and  further disappointments for the Liberal Democrats arose as their actual electoral support fell below their ratings in final eve of election polls . Nevertheless relative to the lack lustre ratings of the Liberal Democrats in 2008 and 2009 the 2010 General Election result could be rated as more of a success.

  1. Click here for BBC Coverage of the TV Debates
  2. Click here for the IPSOS MORI Slide Presentation on the 2010 General Election and scroll to Slides 14-16 and 21-25
  3. Click here and here for BBC coverage of recent Liberal Democrat politics

click here for a direct link to a very useful Update on the formation of the Coalition and its performance to Feb 2011

Click here for information on the AV referendum and here for the results of the AV Referendum

The Liberal Democrats in 2011 [From the BBC] 

Click here for Guardian articles on the Liberal Democrats including reaction to Chris Huhne’s resignation

The Liberal Democrats and Constitutional Reform [From the BBC]

Click here [BBC] and here [Guardian] for the resignation of Chris Huhne

Click here for a BBC assessment of Chris Huhne’s career and here for a BBC assessment of the implications of Chris Huhne’s resignation for the future of Coalition environmental policies.

Click here for Guardian coverage of the formation of Liberal Left and here for the new Liberal Left web site.

Click here for the resignation of Nick Clegg

Click here for Tim Fallon as leader of the Liberal Democrats

Click here and here for Sir Vince Cable as Leader of the Liberal Democrats

Click here for Jo Swinson as leader of the Liberal Democrats

Click here and here for Sir Nick Davey as Leader of the Liberal Democrats