There was other news over the weekend — the Henry review, the Logies, the return of Malcolm Turnbull — but those of us who are focused on the British election could not help turning first to the Guardian, which broke with tradition to endorse the Liberal Democrats:

“Citizens have votes. Newspapers do not. However, if the Guardian had a vote in the 2010 general election it would be cast enthusiastically for the Liberal Democrats.”

For most of this century the Guardian has been seen as a pro-Labour newspaper, yet its roots are solidly liberal. Founded as the Manchester Guardian in 1821, the paper was the voice of the rising middle class of the north of England, and reflected their political views — see, for example, its report on the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846. Friday’s editorial was something of a homecoming.

Whether it will help the Lib Dems much is another question. Recent polls suggest a strengthening of the Conservative vote and consequent decline in the chances of a hung parliament, although it still seems more likely than not. But as Richard Sexton pointed out yesterday, under first-past-the-post voting a third party has to adopt a two-election strategy, doing well enough the first time to convince voters that they have a realistic chance, making it safe to vote for them next time.

So the Lib Dems are staking a claim to major party status for the longer term, which makes it all the more important to understand who they are and where they come from.

Nominally the party is a recent creation – its name dates only from 1989 — – but its origins go back more than three centuries, to the Whig party of the early 1680s. In the mid-nineteenth century the Whigs merged with some radicals and free-trade conservatives to form the Liberal Party, which dominated British politics until the first world war.

In the 1920s its place on the left of the political spectrum was usurped by the Labour Party, and although the Liberals never quite disappeared, by the 1950s they had dwindled to irrelevance. Both in policies and personnel they took on the usual characteristics of fringe groups, and their representation in the House of Commons fell to single figures.

The discrediting of socialism in the 1970s led to a modest revival, but the real boost came with the split in the Labour Party in 1981. The breakaway Social Democratic Party formed an electoral alliance with the Liberals, and in 1988 the two parties merged to form what became the Liberal Democrats. The SDP added a much-needed infusion of leadership talent and policy realism, but without breaking continuity with the Liberal past.

But much has changed since the heyday of nineteenth-century liberalism, and positions that were once mainstream – support for civil liberties, democracy and disarmament — are now associated with the extreme left.

Hence the perception by many on the right that the Lib Dems — who were, for example, the only party to oppose the Iraq war – are now to the left of Labour, despite their aggressive support for spending cuts and smaller government.

Australia’s Liberal Party, as its name reveals, shares a common heritage with the Lib Dems but little else. While Britain’s Liberals spent decades in the wilderness, our Liberal Party pursued power to the exclusion of other ideals. In recent times its members have become more and more explicit about describing themselves as “conservatives”, creating the strange spectacle of a party run by its own self-proclaimed philosophical enemies.

If Nick Clegg can succeed in cracking the two-party monopoly, more people may take an interest in just what a “Liberal” party should be doing.

Meanwhile, check out the Crikey website’s wrap as the UK papers make their picks.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey