Link: Birth of the British Liberal Party. Podcast: Cavour and Italy’s role in British Liberalism

Primary version of this post, with visual content, at Barry Stocker’s Weblog.

Podcast on the foundation of the (British) Liberal Party at Willis Rooms in 159, talk given by Anthony Howe. Sound quality as poor, but a very good talk, in delivery and anecdote as well as historical analysis.

Anthony Howe, of the University of East Anglia gave a talk at at meeting at Willis Rooms (also known as Willis’s Rooms) in King Street, St James’. London., organised by the Liberal Democrat History Group and the National Liberal Club. The Liberal Democrats are the continuation of the Liberal Party.

How refers the way that a distinct Liberal group emerged in Parliament. The self-description of ‘liberal’ amongst non-Tories in Parliament became widespread in the 1830s. The Tory Party was the first version of what is now the Conservative Party. It emerged in the late 17th Century, in rivalry with the Whig Party. The Whig Party was more pro-parliamentary, less monarchist, and less tied to the Church of England. In the early 19th Century Whigs were joined by Radicals as opponents of the Tories. The Radicals (also known as Manchester Liberals) were pro-free trade, for widening voting rights and opposed to aristocratic influence in politics. The Whigs and Tories were both based in the aristocracy, and their politics were embedded aristocratic social networks and personalities.

Whigs and Radicals were joined by followers of the Tory Prime Minister Robert Peel, after his party split over the abolition of the Corn Laws (restrictions on the import and export of grains to and from the UK). Peel was a free trader and his followers departed from the organised Tories, though at this time party ties and organisation was very loose so these splits are coalitions are less clear than in today’s politics.

As Howe notes, it’s difficult to date the formation of the Liberal Party, since it could be taken as far back as the emergence of the Whigs in the 1680s and as far forward as the first government of William Ewart Gladstone in 1868, which is the best date for the emergence of Liberal Party as a structured organised party in the current sense. So any date is arbitrary. As How mentions Liberal became an informal label for non-Tories in the 1830s. He gestures more vaguely at the governments of (Lord) John Russell (1846-1852) and Henry John Temple (Lord Palmerston) (1855-8), which were Whig but could retrospectively be regarded as Liberal since they were the leading figures in the emergent Liberal Party of 1859. Howe emphasises that the 1859 meeting was preceded by jostling between Palmerston and Russell for the the leadership of the emergent Liberal Party. This took place through Whig aristocratic salons, where Palmerston’s wife made a particularly good impression, overcoming Palmerston’s handicap of having started his political career as a Tory. What Howe doesn’t mention is that Palmerston’s transition from Whig to Tory was associated with the salons his wife held while married to Whig peer. it appears that she and Palmerston initiated an intimate relationship before the death of her husband. Palmeston’s personal life is full of this kind of entertaining details, he had been ‘named’ in a divorce case, i.e. his apparent affair with a married woman was the cause given by her husband for seeking a divorce. The political point here is that politics was tied up with the personal relations between aristocrats in the most intimate way, in every sense.

The 1859 Willis Rooms meetings brought together Whigs, Radicals, Peelites and a few who already primarily described themselves as Liberal in opposition to the Tory Prime Minister of the day, Edward Smith-Stanley (Lord Derby).

One notable aspect of this meeting are that the greatest figure in the history of the Liberal Party, William Ewart Gladstone (a Peelite who began his career an extreme advocate of a state based on the Church of England) was absent and voted for Derby’s government. This did not stop him from rapidly becoming the leading personality in the Liberal Party, and enormous efforts had been made to persuade him to attend that meeting.

Another notable aspect is that the Radical leader John Bright only attended because his mentor, the great Free Trade polemicist and politician Richard Cobden was in the United States. The fierceness of Bright’s anti-aristocratic invective excluded him from the cabinet led by Palmerston which emerged from this meeting, and Bright had real contempt for Palmerston so it was a great achievement that he was there at all. Other leading Radicals were offered places in government though.

Another notable aspect of this process was that Palmerstonians and Radicals were unitd around sympathy for Camillo Cavour, the Prime Minister of Piedmont , who was fighting for Italian unity against the Austrian Empire which then included Venetia and Lombardy. Palmerston might have explained this support in terms of national interests, Bright more in terms of the ideal of self-determination, but the result was the same: leaving Cavour and his ally France, a free hand against the Austrians. As Howe says, there is a case for saying that Cavour was the unconscious founder of the British Liberal Party. This remark is itself about the claim of Robert Blake, biographer of the Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli, that Disraeli was the unconscious founder of the Liberal Party because all factions despised him.


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