by Michael Meadowcroft
A twenty-first century Liberal would have surprisingly little difficulty in recognising a kindred soul amongst the Liberals of the early nineteenth century. The only major allowance to be made would be in regard to the social elitism of the time and, even then, it is mainly the pace of change from the Great Reform Act of 1832 onward that would frustrate the Liberal of today. Even in earlier centuries there were those, such as John Locke, who wrote with a clear Liberal perception of the nature of liberty, and those who, at great personal risk, won and entrenched the supremacy of parliament over the king.
It was not that the word "Liberal" was in exclusive use by a party at the time - its use even in a broad political context only dates from the 1820s - and the colloquial use of Whig and Tory preceded that of Liberal and Conservative respectively by many decades. Certainly there were those who stood on a "Liberal" ticket in 1832 and thereafter at both national and local levels, but there was no central party structure nor mass individual party membership as we know it. Indeed, well into the twentieth century, there were those who, under the broad Liberal umbrella, identified themselves as "Radical" and who stood for election as such.
Where there were two member constituencies, deals would often be done to maximise the anti-Conservative vote. In Northampton, for instance, the Radical Charles Bradlaugh was paired with the "mainstream" Liberal, Henry Labouchere, to ensure the election of both candidates. As an atheist Bradlaugh refused to take the religious-based oath as an MP and was prevented from taking his seat. The Liberals and electors of Northampton remained remarkably loyal to Bradlaugh, electing him four times in four years until he was able to sit in the Commons!
The one Liberal leader able to hold the different factions together, and who bestrode nineteenth century politics, was William Ewart Gladstone. Four times Prime Minister - forming his last government at the age of 84 - it is often forgotten that Gladstone began his political career as a Conservative MP, partly because, as high church Anglican it was more natural to identify with toryism. Non-conformists tended to be Liberal. Similarly, landed gentry were Tory but industrialists - however wealthy - were Liberal. Maintaining a government majority for legislation required constant negotiation with groups in both parties - curiously similar to the continual problems facing an American president and his dealings with Congress.
Alongside the extension of the franchise, the development of urban constituencies to recognise the industrialisation of Britain, and the secret ballot, came the evolution of political parties. It became more and more difficult to maintain the elitism of early Victorian politics and the formation of the National Liberal Federation in 1874 is regarded as the definitive moment when modern political parties began. Even then the London headquarters had little or no power to impose decisions and its influence on local candidate selection came mainly from its ability to fund electoral contests. If, as was often the case, the local constituency had wealthy backers, or a rich candidate, it could easily ignore the wishes of the NLF officers in London.
The national party manifesto is also a twentieth century concept as is the idea of being a "good" constituency MP. In the papers of Herbert Gladstone, WE's youngest son and one of my predecessors as MP for West Leeds, is a letter from his constituency chairman suggesting that he might soon pay a visit to Leeds "seeing that it is two years since he last visited the constituency"! The lack of widespread party membership and of party democracy did not denote a lack of fierce partisanship; older constituents in West Leeds would often relate how as children they would accost other children with the question, "are yer blue or yaller?" and hit them with a rolled up newspaper if they gave the wrong answer.
The key figure in the organisational development of the Liberal party is Francis Schnadhorst. A Birmingham businessman, Schnadhorst is largely unknown today and no biography of him exists. Nevertheless it was Schnadhorst who realised that, with the enfranchisement of working men and the introduction of the secret ballot - before 1870 the elector's votes were recorded and published, thus enabling much bribery - the formation of a membership organisation and the thorough organisation of election campaigns would bring electoral success. Under his local mentor, Joseph Chamberlain, he demonstrated vividly in Birmingham the effectiveness of his organisational skills. The NLF wanted him to take over the party's national organisation but, with Schnadhorst unwilling to move to London, it took an enormous fee to get him to spend even part of the week at NLF headquarters.
Fortunately for Liberals, Schnadhorst remained with the party after the split of 1886 when Gladstone's determination to give Home Rule to Ireland led to Chamberlain leading a Liberal Unionist revolt which eventually led him and his followers into a united "Conservative and Unionist" party. Schnadhorst's organisational skills, allied to Gladstone's public stature and the tentative Liberal steps towards encouraging working men into Liberal politics, gave the Liberal party a considerable head start in twentieth century politics.
Party candidates in municipal elections have a longer history than is often realised. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, inaugurated local elections and was the catalyst for local party involvement in those elections. Even the elections for the Board of Guardians, which administered the Poor Law, and, later, for the School Boards were contested on party lines. The local franchise was wider than that for parliamentary elections and thus provided the opportunity for local parties to involve more individuals - including some working men - in the electoral process.
The success of this forerunner to the community politics concept of the 1970s in the urban cities can be gauged by the fact that, with the exception of a few short months, Liberals controlled the Leeds Borough (and, later, City) council for fifty-seven consecutive years from 1835! Civic pride and municipal innovation was at its highest in those years when Britain's towns and cities were dominated by coalitions of Whigs, Chartists and Radicals. It is easy to forget in the destruction of local government over the past sixty years, that Liberals developed a vast range of municipal services, including gas, electricity, local hospitals, water supply and trustee banking - all in addition to public health, libraries, education and housing.
By the end of the nineteenth century Liberalism was at a cross roads. It had presided over the transformation of the democratic process, both in terms of the enfranchisement of most working men, the introduction of fair electoral practices and the establishment of local democracy right down to the parish council level. In addition it had overseen the remarkable development of the infrastructure of our cities, including sewage disposal and the supply of pure water - reforms which did more than any other single innovation to improve the health of the population and to extend life expectancy. However, the party was split over the introduction of home rule for Ireland and its response to the rise of organised labour and to the birth of the Independent Labour Party was timid and tentative. These issues would play key roles in determining the fate of the party in the next century.
[to be continued]