The Liberals used to be the main British political party in opposition to the Conservatives until 1918.
Their roots go back to the Whigs, a group of influential landowners and successful business people, who in the 1680's advocated limited constitutional monarchy. The Tories, representing religiously intolerant and xenophobic country gentry, opposed the Whigs and advocated absolute monarchy.
From 1714, for nearly 50 years, the Whigs played a dominant role in the government of Britain. After 1784 William Pitt the Younger formed a Tory Party which gained the dominant influence, which was opposed by the Whig Party, led by Charles James Fox, who sought electoral, parliamentary, and philanthropic reforms.
It was after 1815 that from the Whigs there emerged the Liberal Party lead by Lord John Russell and William Gladstone, and from the Tories, the Conservative Party lead by Robert Peel and Benjamin Disraeli.
Under William Gladstone the Liberals established the public education system, the secret ballot, and reformed the judicial system.
The 18th and 19th centuries were the time when most of the British wealth had been created. The present generation still lives off that wealth.
This was also the time of the development of active popular participation in government by people who saw themselves responsible for their own actions and seeking to contribute to the general welfare of the society. The politicians of that time were financially independent people who could afford to dedicate their time and energy to public service — which is how politics was seen at that time.
This was also the time when honesty and moral reputation were held in high respect. Any form of dishonesty or immorality meant public disgrace and often financial ruin. A person holding a public office was expected to resign at the slightest suspicion of dishonesty or immorality.
But in spite of the public education system and legal and constitutional equality of all the people under the law, the “class” attitudes inherited from the old “master‐and‐servant” feudal system remained. And at the beginning of the 20th century, marked by World War I and the Russian Revolution, these “class” divisions had drastically changed the British political landscape.
After World War I a new force appeared on the scene — the Labour Party. They were Socialists inspired by the Marxist ideas of “public ownership of the means of production” and of “class struggle”. The Labour Party became the main party of government alternating with the Conservative Party.
At that time the idea that Communism is inevitable has gained acceptance within the British political establishment. The Conservatives were trying to salvage whatever privileges they could (mostly for themselves), while yielding to the Labour reforms. The British electorate was split into two main camps: those favouring a Soviet style Socialist state and voting Labour (the Left), and those seeking to resist the advance of Socialism and voting Conservative (the Right). The Liberals became an odd‐man‐in‐the‐middle minority party (the Centre), whose role was mainly restricted to campaigning on local issues. This enabled them to win some local elections. But their share of the national vote varied over the years between 2.5% and 25%.
By the last quarter of the 20th century Communism began to be discredited as a workable form of society. The repressive nature of the Soviet system was becoming increasingly common knowledge. The Labour reforms had also lead to high inflation, unemployment, decay in moral standards and rise in crime. This allowed the Conservatives under Margaret Thatcher to become the party of government, while Labour slipped into a period of unelectability.
Being unable to play a significant role in Parliament, the Liberals formed an alliance with a splinter group of Labour party activists — the Social Democrats and renamed themselves as Liberal Democrats. A group of liberals objected to this merger and formed a small party of their own which retained the name of the Liberal Party.
Towards the end of the 20th century the Conservatives under the leadership of John Major became arrogant and corrupt, and the people were looking for an alternative. Tony Blair used this situation by posturing as an admirer of Mrs Thatcher and promising, that he would not introduce any major changes in the way the Conservatives “ran the economy” and would keep the taxes at the same level within his first period in office. On this “platform” of “we are the best Tories you've ever had” the Labour Party was elected, and Tony Blair became Prime Minister.
With the fear of Communism being no longer there to provide automatic support for the Conservatives, and Socialism having lost its attraction to provide automatic support for the Labour Party, the “class‐struggle” driven politics had become a matter of history. This brought to the surface the issue: “What for do we need politics at all?”. We do need government. But do we need politics? We need honest and competent administrators, not political demagogues seeking to achieve personal power and prestige by manipulating popular prejudices.
The Conservatives being unable to find their way to electability or even to being an effective opposition party, Tony Blair continued to stay in office without any challenge.
Having no challenge from the Opposition, Tony Blair's personality traits became his own only “enemy”. He concentrated on “presentation” or “spin” — manipulation of facts in order to present activities of his government in a favourable light. This lead his government to loss of credibility.
The “left‐right” politics having become obsolete, the parties were seeking how to legitimate their existence, and they all turned to “the services” — education and health, in the belief that people are “worried” about their health and the education of their children and that politicians can make political capital by exploiting these “worries”. Thus the Conservatives started seeking out any sources of public dissatisfaction with these “services”, while Labour were promising that they would expand and improve them.
The main debate became about who will spend more money on the services without raising the taxes. The Liberals were also part of this debate, saying that they would spend more and tax more. But these efforts to arouse and exploit the public anxieties about the “services” did not produce the results the politicians sought to achieve, and the general public attitude towards all politicians was that of distrust and disgust.
Compared to the politicians of the 17th to 19th centuries, the politicians of the late 20th and the 21st centuries were people of different mould. The former were financially independent men of principle and integrity giving their time, effort and talents freely to the public good; the latter were unprincipled political demagogues, whose livelihood depended on their political survival, and who were seeking to advance their careers by exploiting public prejudices and gullibility and to hang on to their positions by hook or by crook.
This change of mould was a gradual process, which became clearly noticeable in the second half of the 20th century, and which reached its peek towards the end of the 20th century.
Then an event happened literally “out of the blue” — the Event of the 9/11, that created a new focus of interest for the Media and the politicians. For the politicians it was especially opportune — it created an Enemy and a new source of Fear. Hatred and Fear being powerful human emotions, Tony Blair saw in them a new ideology and a great opportunity for boosting his own power and prestige — he became the chief advocate of the War on Terror.
His illogical arguments in support of the war and attempts to support his arguments with shoddy made‐up “evidence” has only further lowered his credibility, which was already low due to his “spin”.
Both Tony Blair and the present day Conservatives still see the world through the distorting prism of “left‐centre‐right” politics. But “left‐centre‐right” politics is obsolete. Not many people today will follow a politician waving a red flag and shouting Marxist slogans. Nor is there fear of a Communist Revolution that made the “upper and middle classes” rally behind the Conservatives. Nor does a “middle ground” between the two makes much sense. People increasingly think in terms of “Right and Wrong”, not of “Right and Left”.
Nor can the Conservatives and Tony Blair recover their past automatic popularity by latching on to the American War on Terror — more and more people understand that terrorism is but a reaction to injustice and that, if the sources of injustice are eliminated, terrorism will disappear. They understand that the War on Terror is not a way to world security — it is the source of the presently increasing violence.
George Bush is succeeding to exploit the War on Terror hysteria in America, but in Britain support for the War on Terror is increasingly becoming a pair of concrete boots, not a political safety buoy.
With the continuous loss of credibility by the Blair government, and there being no hope that the present Conservative Party is capable of regaining theirs, the questions arise:
“Can the Liberals become the next party of government?”
“What do they need to do to become one?”.
The answer to the first question is:
“Yes, they can.”
and to the second:
“They need to go back to their Whig roots.”
The British people are starved of honesty in public life, they are starved of reason, logic and common sense. They are sick and tired of political clowns playing their clumsy tricks on the political stage.
By rejecting the class‐based social demagogy of the 20th century and by putting forward a philosophy of a society where people are free, equal under the law and responsible for the results of their own actions, and where the role of government is limited to that which is strictly necessary for the functioning of such society, the Liberals can provide the leadership in the 21st century. But to achieve that they will need to get rid of all the nonsense that they absorbed in the course of the 20th century.