The Revival of British Liberalism: from Grimond to Clegg

Tudor Jones’s The Revival of British Liberalism: from Grimond to Clegg is an excellent study of the development of the policies and philosophies of Liberal Party since Jo Grimond’s election as its leader, through the Alliance years (including some astute analysis of the policies of the SDP) and into the Liberal Democrats. The book, published in 2011, ends just as Nick Clegg was elected party leader in 2007, but that does not make the book feel dated because the clarity of its analysis makes it easy to see the roots behind many of the more recent party debates.

Revival of British Liberalism - Tudor JonesThe book draws on a broad range of secondary research, supplemented by interviews with some key people, and with a particular emphasis on the developing attitude towards free markets.

Tudor Jones is especially good at chronicling the changing attitudes towards free markets, pointing out how dominating an issue it became for Jo Grimond in his post-leader years and how, although it’s now often forgotten now that Paddy Ashdown is seen as a centre-left figure, Ashdown set out, successfully, to make the party he led much keener on seeing the answer to market failures as being to fix the market rather than to replace the market.

That is most recently seen clearly with the environment, where the party in government has promoted renewable energy by providing financial incentives and restructuring the energy market, rather than by simple command and control regulation ordering energy suppliers to change their behaviour.

What makes The Revival of British Liberalism: from Grimond to Clegg stand out from the clutch of other books covering the party’s history in this period (including the one I contributed to) is its focus on policy and philosophy.

Most of the time that is a strength, with just enough of wider political events in the party – such as general election results – woven into the book to give the policy debates some context. Jones is particular good at this for the Grimond years and the dissonance between policy development that was trying to appeal to one part of the electorate whilst the electoral strategy was pitched at a different part. His account of the rise of Community Politics is also a cut above the usual fare, especially on the question of how a philosophy of local community activism could (or couldn’t) convert into an agenda for Parliamentary action.

At times, however, the strong focus on policy and philosophy is a weakness as it means the pre-Grimond first wave of Liberal revival in 1956-9 gets almost no explanation as it was not a revival driven by either. Moreover, the book generally has little to say about what was happening with the policies of Labour and the Conservatives, which given that Liberal/Lib Dem policy was not being made in a vacuum but rather in a competitive political system, misses out an important prompt for policy change. There is, rightly, attention given to how Margaret Thatcher’s appropriation of economic liberalism gave it a bad reputation for the Liberal and SDP, but most of the time the political pressures and incentives that arose from the changing policies of Labour and the Tories are not mentioned.

No one book can cover everything, however, and these are reasons to read more than just Tudor Jones’s book rather than to be put off what is an excellent contribution to understanding the past and also a handy primer for making the best of the future.

If you like this, you might also be interested in Peace, Reform and Liberation: a history of Liberal politics in Britain 1679-2011 and in my poster What the Liberal Democrats believe.

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Buy The Revival of British Liberalism: from Gimond to Clegg by Tudor Jones here.

Note: a copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher.

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