‘The Liberal Party were a “curious alliance” of several different political groups, which appeared unlikely to survive.’ Assess this view of the Liberal party in the 1850s and 60s (25)

Introduction

  • Following the Repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846, the poltical landscape changed dramatically.
  • The Liberal faction emerged which contained Whig, Peelite and Radical ministers which has led historians to term it a curious alliance.
  • In reality, there were a lot of other factors which united them and the contextual factors meant that they had a good chance of survival, emerging officially as a party in 1865.

Arguments in support of the statement…

  • Half of the liberal party were made up of wealthy landowners which were the main object of the radical attack. These were largely Whigs eg. Lord John Russell who were joined with middle class industrialists. The fact that there was already a conflict of interests suggested that they seemed unlikely to survive.
  • The Liberals also differed on the subject of religion. The Whigs aristocrats who made up the party were largely in support of the Church of England whereas the middle class industrialists were mostly non-conformists. This divided their attitudes towards policy on religion.
  • There were often tensions between key Liberals, specifically Palmerston and Russell. They disagreed on the gun-boat diplomacy of the Don Pacifico affair and Lord John Russell’s cabinet eventually collapsed after Palmerston turned a militia bill into a vote of no confidence.
  • It could be argued that the infancy of the Liberal alliance pushed Queen Victorian towards Disraeli and the Conservatives. Not having the support and full confidence of the Queen was a major limitation for the Liberals at the very beginning and indicated that they were unlikely to survive.

Arguments against the statement…

  • The Liberals were in universal support of many things. Firstly, all wanted to end Tory dominance of the government and their support for protectionism. Secondly, all wanted to continue with the principles of free-trade, laissez-faire and self-help. This would suggest that the alliance was far from curious.
  • The majority of new MPs were from the same industrial background after being enfranchised in the 1832 Reform Act. This enabled the Liberals to form majority governments, which would indicate that they had a strong chance at surviving.
  • The Liberal Party were far more likely to survive in the face of a divided Tory opposition. Had been split by the Repeal of the Corn Laws of 1846 and Between 1852 and 1868, Derby was Prime Minister on 3 occasions which suggests that the Conservative government was not very ‘strong and stable’ 😉 which aided the Liberals.
  • Contextually, the Liberals benefitted from improved party organisation and sophistication of MPs.

Conclusion

  • Ultimately, the majority of liberals agreed on principles which were key at that time and which had defined that era of politics (ie. free trade and laissez-faire).
  • They were also helped massively by the weak opposition which allowed them to mature into the Liberal party which emerged in 1865.
  • Overall, the Liberal party was not a curious alliance and had a strong chance of survival given the context. Gladstone’s dominance for the 20 years after 1885 is testement to that strength.

 

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