Alex Wilcock and I penned this list of six things* to remember for Liberal Democrat News, the party’s weekly newspaper:
Paddy Ashdown once admitted to under-estimating the importance of a party’s history: “A political party is about more than plans and priorities and policies… It also has a heart and a history and a soul”.
Yet there is no “history of the party” training session for the keen Liberal Democrat conference representative nor history briefings for new members. So here are six snippets from the party’s history to entertain, elucidate and illustrate our heart and soul in ways that should still strike a note today.
1. Impressive firsts:
The first Jewish Member of Parliament was Liberal Lionel de Rothschild, elected in 1847 but not able to take his seat until 1858. The first atheist MP was Liberal Charles Bradlaugh, elected in 1880 and finally able to take his seat in 1886. Both fought in Parliament and in multiple elections in order to establish their rights.
The first Asian MP was Liberal Dadabhai Naoroji in 1892. The first female Liberal MP was Margaret Wintringham in 1921, when she succeeded her deceased husband in a by-election. The first female Liberal MP without such a family route to Parliament was Vera Woodhouse in 1923. The first out gay Liberal Democrat MP was Stephen Williams in 2005.
2. Left/right confusion:
Wanting to make deals with Labour isn’t historically associated with being left-wing. It used to be people seen as being on the party’s Liberal Party’s right (such as Richard Holme) who were keenest on deals with Labour. Conversely, being pro-market forces has not historically been associated with being pro-Conservative.
During his time as Liberal Democrat leader, Paddy Ashdown both pushed for a much more hard-edged free market attitude and also saw the Liberal Democrats as being part of a common centre-left political mission with Labour.
3. Disputes we’d rather forget:
The longest and most bitter row after the Liberal Party and the SDP merged to form the Liberal Democrats in 1988 was not over philosophy, policy or even personalities – simply over the word “Liberal” (with no distinction between social and economic).
For a while, the new party was named the Social and Liberal Democrats; a mouthful, this was officially shortened to “the Democrats”. Most of the party rebelled and insisted on “Liberal Democrats”.
It took several years, an all-member referendum and a constitutional amendment before the name simply became “Liberal Democrats”.
Then everyone could get on with shortening it to “Lib Dems”…
4. Heroics we are happy to remember:
In 1989, with the new-ish party badly split, a very distant fourth in the European Elections and described by Paddy Ashdown as within the margin of error of nothing in the opinion polls, the most unifying issue the party became known for was a liberal policy on immigration. With Hong Kong about to return to Chinese rule, the Lib Dems were united in saying that Hong Kong residents were entitled to British passports. In contrast, the Conservative Government said only the richest could buy their way in; the Labour Party voted with rebels on the Conservative far right to keep every single one out.
5. Policies that have gone from eccentric to conventional wisdom:
In 1992, the three issues Jeremy Paxman threw against Paddy Ashdown in interviews repeatedly as proof that the Liberal Democrats were extreme and out of touch were Hong Kong passports, green taxes and (what were then called) gay rights. One issue passed; the others are now the mainstream.
6. Avoiding a coalition didn’t work last time:
The Liberal Party for a short time kept the Labour Party in office in the late 1970s after it lost its majority in the House of Commons. The so-called Lib/Lab Pact was seen by most in the party as at best a missed opportunity and at worst a failure as it did not contain a list of significant policy promises. PR for the European Parliament was lost as the deal only promised a free vote, not the support of Labour MPs.
Alex Wilcock writes the blog Love and Liberty and is a former Parliamentary candidate and Federal Policy Committee member. Dr Mark Pack is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and one of the contributors to the new history of the party, Peace, Reform and Liberation (Biteback Publishing 2011).
* Yes, the Liberal Democrat tradition is lists of three things to remember. But there are two of us, ok?