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The broad church that is the Liberal Democrats

In a series of comments under the post, The Strange Rebirth of Classical Liberalism, the question of what the Liberal Democrats are all about came up several times. One comment by Dan asked about the party’s view of limited government and the free market. Instead of responding directly by discussing my own experiences, I thought it might be more illuminating to look at what different strands make up the Liberal Democrats. This is partly because I see myself as a commentator on the party and how liberalism has developed.

It is a cliche to say that the party is a broad church. All political parties are.

In one sense, the Liberal Democrats are a new party. Formed after a merger, the party combines at least two political traditions. The SDP rejected a Labour party that was adopting policies like unilateral nuclear disarmament and withdrawal from the European Community. The party placed itself deliberately in the centre ground and shared some headline policies with the Liberal party.

The Liberal party was born out of a merger a century before between the Whigs and the Radicals. This tradition was influenced by the ideas of Adam Smith, John Locke and John Stuart Mill. It was shaped by a reforming impulse that manifested itself with repeal of the Corn Laws, pushing for free trade and the establishment of the rule of law. Its non-conformist radicalism made common cause with the co-operative, and mutual, movement and a concern for the poor.

Over time these strands have evolved, but they can still be identified in the party.

Simon Hughes, a member of the Liberal party, clearly comes from that non-conformist radical tradition. He has a deep concern for people in society who through no fault of their own struggle to get by. His instincts are liberal but mixes this with a desire for equality of opportunity.

The ex SDP side of the Liberal Democrats are more like Scandinavian social democrats. They are for a free market and strong public services.

The ‘Orange Book’ liberals, some of which are ex SDP, want to see government helping the most vulnerable in society and believe the freerer the market the more likely that is to happen. Some, like Chris Huhne, believe that regulatory frameworks can help develop markets that would not otherwise come into fruition.

The social liberals also support a free market, albeit one that is more heavily regulated. They tend to be sceptical about using market mechanics to help provide public services while the ‘Orange Bookers’ are more comfortable with this.

Since its inception, the party has supported constitutional reform which in their view would limit, and check, executive power. Traditionally, the classical liberals within the Conservative party have opposed these reforms. Some reject change because they believe tinkering with the constitution is dangerous, some dislike the idea of the executive being constrained while others take the view that constitutional change won’t actually limit government. Whether the changes that the Lib Dems argue for will work is open to debate. The point though is that the commitment to limiting government has always been there.

Clearly, the Liberal Democrats are not a classical liberal party. But there are members who are classical liberals and even social liberals are influenced by the ideas of liberty, tolerance, limited government, sound money and the distribution of power.

6 Responses to “The broad church that is the Liberal Democrats”

  1. Geoffrey Payne Says:

    A good and fair article, IMHO.

  2. Simon Goldie Says:

    Thanks Geoffrey.

  3. mark kay Says:

    Very interesting for my Masters research on the ‘changing identity of the Liberal party’


  4. David M Gibson Says:

    I’m interested that you feel equality of opportunity is an add-on to classical liberalism. I believed it was a constant strain in the writings of people like JS Mill, Locke and Smith. JS Mill, for example, said that nothing should be put beyond reach of those who wish to use it in a non-harmful way. I take this to include education, medicines and employment. Adam Smith advocated a quality education for all and Locke is very keen on equality of being.

    Do you feel it’s possible to be a true classical liberal and not advocate equality of opportunity?

  5. Simon Goldie Says:

    Thanks Mark.

  6. Simon Goldie Says:


    That is a very good point. I was thinking more of the social democratic interpretation of equality of opportunity where the State intervenes to create a level playing field. Inherent in liberalism is the idea of equality, equality before the law, everyone having opportunities to develop and so on but I think the term has come to mean something else.

    Does that make more sense now I have clarified my thinking?