The following short history is adapted and updated with permission from Peace, Reform and Liberation: A History of Liberal Politics in Britain 1679-2011. For more on the history of the Liberals, SDP, Alliance and Liberal Democrats see the Liberal Democrat History Group website and for more on the party’s beliefs, see What do the Liberal Democrats believe?
1642–46, 1648 The English Civil Wars establish the supremacy of Parliament over the monarchy. Intensive debates begin on the proper form of government and the appropriate limitations on its authority, from which Liberalism ultimately derives. The terms Whig and Tory are first used.
1649–60 The execution of Charles I is followed by a republican government, which proves unable to devise acceptable forms of accountability and settle the degree of religious toleration which is compatible with national unity.
1660 Restoration of the monarchy.
1678–81 The Exclusion Crisis, from which the first Whig and Tory parties emerge. Whigs favour the exclusion of James, Duke of York, from the succession to the crown because he is a Roman Catholic.
1685 James II succeeds Charles II.
1688 The Glorious Revolution: William of Orange and Mary overthrow James at the invitation of the predominantly Whig nobility.
1689 The Bill of Rights and Toleration Act passed.
1690 Publication of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, a foundation document of Whig/Liberal philosophy.
1715 Jacobite rebellion fails, ensuring continued Whig hegemony.
1721 The Whig Robert Walpole becomes the first Prime Minister.
1742 Fall of Walpole.
1745 Final Jacobite rebellion fails, allowing for the gradual recovery of Tory respectability.
1760 Accession of George III. He plays an active role in British politics, with profound consequences for the development of parties.
1763 John Wilkes challenges the authority of general warrants.
1770 Edmund Burke publishes Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontent.
1776 American Declaration of Independence. Whigs tend to side with the colonial rebels.
1783 William Pitt the Younger becomes Prime Minister. The duel between Pitt and Charles James Fox comes to define the conflict between the Tories and Whigs.
1789 The French Revolution, welcomed by Fox, begins.
1791 Thomas Paine publishes Rights of Man.
1792 Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
1793 Outbreak of war with France.
1806 Death of Fox. Death of Pitt.
1815 The end of the Napoleonic Wars. Corn Laws introduced.
1819 The Peterloo Massacre.
1829 Catholic emancipation.
1830 After a long period of Tory dominance, the Whigs return to power under Earl Grey.
1832 Passage of Great Reform Act. Liberals of various hues win the resulting general election. Earl Grey continues as Prime Minister.
1834 William IV dismisses Grey and appoints Peel as Prime Minister of a brief minority Conservative administration.
1835 Liberals win general election. Lord Melbourne becomes Prime Minister, following meeting of liberals at Lichfield House.
1838 Anti-Corn Law League established. People’s Charter drafted.
1841 Conservatives under Peel win general election and return to power.
1846 Repeal of the Corn Laws splits Conservatives. Peel resigns and is replaced by the Whig Lord John Russell.
1847 Liberals (more accurately, a combination of Whigs, radicals and Peelites) win general election. Russell continues as Prime Minister of a Whig administration.
1852 Russell’s government collapses and is replaced by a minority Conservative administration under Derby. The liberals are again victorious in a general election and Lord Aberdeen is appointed Prime Minister of a coalition of Whigs, radicals and Peelites.
1855 Aberdeen resigns over the conduct of the Crimean War. Lord Palmerston becomes Prime Minister.
1857 Liberals win general election. Palmerston continues as Prime Minister, but resigns in 1858 following Orsini plot.
1859 The Liberal Party formed on 6 June, when Whigs, Peelites and radicals meet at Willis’s Rooms in St James Street, London, to unite in opposition to the Conservatives. Palmerston becomes first Liberal Prime Minister.
1865 On Palmerston’s death shortly after a general election victory, Earl Russell succeeds as leader.
1866 Russell’s government falls as a result of internal disputes over electoral reform.
1867 Disraeli’s government passes Second Reform Act.
1868 Liberals win general election and William Gladstone becomes Prime Minister.
1869 Irish Church Act leads to disestablishment of Church of Ireland.
1870 Forster’s Elementary Education Act establishes school boards to oversee primary schools.
1872 Secret ballot introduced.
1874 Conservatives, led by Disraeli, win general election.
1877 National Liberal Federation formed.
1879 Gladstone’s first Midlothian campaign.
1880 Liberals, under Gladstone, win election and return to power. Compulsory primary education introduced.
1884 Liberals enact Third Reform Act.
1885 General election results in a hung parliament. Gladstone forms his third administration with support from the Irish nationalists.
1886 Liberal Party splits over home rule for Ireland. Conservatives, together with their Liberal Unionist allies, dominate government for the next twenty years. Women’s Liberal Federation formed.
1891 National Liberal Federation meets in Newcastle; its resolutions form the basis of the 1892 election manifesto.
1892 General election results in another hung parliament. Gladstone forms his fourth and last government, with Irish nationalist support.
1894 Gladstone resigns. Lord Rosebery becomes Prime Minister.
1895 Unionists win general election.
1896 Sir William Harcourt replaces Rosebery as Liberal leader.
1899 Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman replaces Harcourt as Liberal leader.
1900 Unionists win general election.
1903 Joseph Chamberlain begins his tariff reform campaign, which divides the Unionists. Herbert Gladstone negotiates secret electoral pact with the newly formed Labour Party.
1904 Winston Churchill, among other Unionist free traders, crosses the floor to join the Liberal Party.
1905 Balfour resigns as Prime Minister; Campbell-Bannerman appointed.
1906 Liberals win a landslide election victory. Free school meals introduced.
1908 Campbell-Bannerman resigns due to ill health and is succeeded as Prime Minister by H. H. Asquith. Labour exchanges introduced.
1909 David Lloyd George’s ‘People’s Budget’ rejected by the House of Lords, prompting a constitutional crisis. Old age pensions paid for the first time. Trade Boards Act introduces first minimum wage in certain occupations.
1910 Two general elections fought, on the basis of ‘peers versus people’, to resolve the crisis over the budget and the power of the Lords. The Liberals remain in power with the support of Labour and the Irish nationalists.
1911 National Insurance and Parliament Acts passed; the supremacy of the House of Commons is established.
1913 Lloyd George launches his land campaign.
1914 First World War declared.
1915 Asquith forms coalition with the Conservatives.
1916 Mounting unhappiness with Asquith’s conduct of the war leads to his replacement by Lloyd George as Prime Minister of the coalition government, largely at the behest of the Conservatives.
1917 Maurice debate deepens divisions between Asquith and Lloyd George Liberals as Asquith accuses Lloyd George of misleading Parliament over troop numbers.
1918 ‘Coupon’ election sees landslide victory for Lloyd George’s coalition; Asquithians are crushed, Asquith himself losing his seat.
1920 Asquith returns to Commons in Paisley by-election.
1921 First Liberal Summer School held at Grasmere.
1922 Conservative backbenchers rebel and bring the coalition to an end. The two Liberal factions are outpolled by the Labour Party in the election that follows.
1923 Liberal factions reunite to fight election in support of free trade, following Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin’s decision to introduce tariffs. Liberals win 158 seats but are now clearly the third party, behind Labour as well as the Conservatives.
1924 Liberal support for the first Labour (minority) government splits the party; Liberals reduced to forty seats in the general election after the fall of the government.
1926 General Strike. Asquith retires and Lloyd George takes over as leader.
1928 Lloyd George leads revival in party thinking. Britain’s Industrial Future (the ‘Yellow Book’) puts forward ideas for stimulating the economy and reducing unemployment.
1929 Liberals win over five million votes but only fifty-nine seats. Second Labour government again leads to growing divisions within the Liberal Party.
1931 Financial crisis leads to formation of National Government. Liberals split three ways: mainstream party, under Sir Herbert Samuel, supports the coalition if it remains true to free trade; followers of Sir John Simon pledge unconditional support to National Government; Lloyd George’s small independent group opposes continuation of coalition when it calls an election. Landslide election victory for National Government.
1932 Samuelites leave the government when tariffs are introduced. The Simonites are reconstituted as a new political party, the Liberal Nationals.
1935 Liberals reduced to twenty-one MPs at general election. Sir Archibald Sinclair replaces the defeated Samuel as leader.
1936–39 Sinclair increasingly critical of policy of appeasement and government’s failure to rearm.
1939 Sinclair declines offer to join National Government at outbreak of war.
1940 When Chamberlain’s government falls, the Liberal Party joins the new coalition under Churchill, with Sinclair serving as Secretary of State for Air.
1944 Sir William Beveridge, author of the influential report on the need for a comprehensive social security system, elected as a Liberal MP at a by-election.
1945 Coalition dissolved as election called after the end of the war in Europe. Liberals win just twelve seats in general election. Clement Davies elected to replace the defeated Sinclair, but proves incapable of preventing the further decline of the party, as MPs and activists defect to right and left.
1950 Liberals reduced to nine seats in general election.
1951 Liberals win just six seats in general election. Davies rejects Churchill’s offer of a Cabinet seat.
1956 Davies retires and Jo Grimond becomes Liberal leader; attacks Conservative government over Suez crisis.
1957 Liberals reach parliamentary nadir when former Liberal MP Megan Lloyd George wins Carmarthen for Labour, leaving the Liberals with just five MPs.
1958 By-election victory at Torrington – the party’s first by-election gain for twenty-nine years – signals Liberal revival is under way.
1962 Eric Lubbock wins spectacular by-election victory at Orpington.
1964 Liberals win nine seats in general election. Narrow Labour majority encourages Grimond to pursue his strategy of realignment of the left.
1966 Liberals win twelve seats in general election, but large Labour majority renders Grimond’s strategy irrelevant.
1967 Grimond retires. Jeremy Thorpe takes over the party leadership.
1970 Election sees the Liberals slip back to six seats again. Liberal Assembly adopts the new strategy of community politics.
1971 Labour Party splits over Europe; Roy Jenkins leads rebellion against three-line whip to support Conservative Prime Minister Ted Heath in British entry to EEC.
1972 Liberal votes instrumental in ensuring survival of legislation implementing UK entry to EEC.
1972–73 Mounting unpopularity of Heath’s governments leads to second Liberal postwar revival, with five by-election gains.
1974 Miners’ strike triggers the indecisive ‘who governs Britain’ election (February), in which the Liberals poll six million votes but win only fourteen seats. Heath invites Thorpe to discuss the possibility of a coalition, but fails to offer guarantees of proportional representation. Minority Labour government survives until second election in October gives it narrow majority; Liberals slip back to thirteen seats.
1975 Referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EEC, in which Liberals campaign alongside senior politicians from other parties, including several Labour ministers who go on to found the Social Democratic Party.
1976 Allegations about Jeremy Thorpe’s private life reach the public domain and lead to his resignation. David Steel elected in his place in first all-member election for the leadership of a major British party.
1977 March – Steel and Labour Prime Minister Callaghan negotiate Lib-Lab Pact after government loses its majority after by-election defeats.
1978 August – Lib-Lab Pact brought to an end.
1979 Liberals win eleven seats at general election.
1981 Moderate Labour leaders Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers (the ‘Gang of Four’) break away from Labour to form the Social Democratic Party (SDP) on 26 March. Liberal Party and SDP form an alliance, agreeing to fight elections on a common platform with joint candidates. Alliance’s first by-election victories in Croydon North West in October and Crosby in November. Poll in December shows 51 per cent support for Alliance. See here for a more detailed chronology of the Alliance years.
1983 Alliances wins 25.4 per cent vote in general election, but only twenty-three seats. Jenkins resigns as leader of the SDP, to be replaced by David Owen.
1986 Rows between the two parties on defence issues damage the Alliance in the run-up to the 1987 election.
1987 The Alliance’s vote share drops to 22.6 per cent in the general election, and Steel proposes a merger of the two parties. Owen opposes merger, but loses the SDP ballot on opening negotiations, and is replaced as party leader by Robert Maclennan.
1988 Merger approved by special conferences and postal votes of both parties and the new party, the Social and Liberal Democrats (SLD), comes into being on 3 March. Paddy Ashdown elected leader in July.
1989 SLD beaten into fourth place by the Green Party in the European elections. ‘Liberal Democrats’ adopted as party name.
1990 Eastbourne by-election victory demonstrates Liberal Democrats’ survival and undermines Margaret Thatcher’s leadership of the Conservatives; she resigns five weeks later.
1991 Liberal Democrat victory in Ribble Valley by-election spells the end of the Poll Tax.
1992 General election sees Liberal Democrats wins 17.8 per cent of the vote and twenty seats. After the election, in a speech at Chard, Ashdown signals the end of his party’s ‘equidistance’ between the two main parties, and indicates that he would be prepared to work with Labour to defeat the Conservatives.
1992–93 Liberal Democrat votes ensure survival of legislation implementing Maastricht Treaty of European Union in Commons after Conservative Eurosceptic rebellion.
1994 Liberal Democrats win first-ever seats in the European Parliament.
1995 Collapse in Conservative support makes Liberal Democrats second party of local government (until 1998), with over 5,000 councillors.
1996–97 Talks over possible cooperation with Labour lead to Cook–Maclennan Agreement, setting out constitutional reforms the two parties aim to implement.
1997 Despite winning smaller share of the vote than in 1992 (16.8 per cent), Liberal Democrats win forty-six seats in general election. Size of Labour majority destroys case for coalition, but Joint Cabinet Committee formed between Labour and Liberal Democrats, initially to discuss constitutional reform.
1998 Commission on reform of voting system under Roy Jenkins reports; government’s failure to support it effectively ends attempts at further cooperation between Liberals Democrats and Labour.
1999 In January, Ashdown announces intention to resign, and is replaced by Charles Kennedy in August. In May elections for new Scottish Parliament see Liberal Democrats win seventeen seats and form coalition government with Labour; the party wins six seats in the Welsh Assembly. In June, Liberal Democrats win ten seats in European elections (now conducted under PR).
2000 Liberal Democrats win Romsey by-election from Conservatives. New Labour leader in Wales negotiates coalition government with Liberal Democrats.
2001 Election sees Liberal Democrats increase vote share to 18.3 per cent, winning fifty-two seats.
2003 Liberal Democrats alone among major parties in opposing UK participation in US-led invasion of Iraq. Elections in Scotland and Wales see no change in Liberal Democrat numbers; coalition with Labour continues in Scotland, but in Wales Labour wins enough seats to govern alone.
2004 Local elections see Liberal Democrats outpoll Labour. Twelve Liberal Democrats elected in European elections but party falls to fourth place behind UK Independence Party.
2005 General election sees party’s vote rise to 22 per cent; it wins sixty-two seats, the highest number of Liberal MPs since 1923.
2005–06 Growing evidence of Kennedy’s alcoholism leads to two attempts by MPs to encourage him to resign; the second, in January 2006, is successful.
2006 In February, Liberal Democrats win Dunfermline & West Fife by-election in middle of leadership campaign. In March, Sir Menzies Campbell elected leader.
2007 Scottish and English local elections see losses, and end of Liberal Democrat – Labour coalition in Scotland; in Wales, party retains same six seats. Party’s fall in the opinion polls, and unhappiness with Campbell’s performance, leads him to resign as leader in October. Nick Clegg elected as leader in December.
2009 European elections see eleven Liberal Democrats elected (a notional increase on a smaller number of seats), but the party again in fourth place.
2010 General election campaign transformed by Britain’s first-ever television debates. Clegg performs exceptionally, leading to polls temporarily showing Liberal Democrats in the lead. Final result sees party increase vote to 23 per cent but lose seats to fifty-seven. Hung parliament leads to coalition with Conservatives; five Liberal Democrats enter Cabinet. The Fixed-Term Parliaments Act stops parties unilaterally calling an early general election. In December, party splits three ways over government proposals to increase tuition fees despite party’s election pledge not to.
2011 English local elections see Liberal Democrats win 15 per cent of vote, losing 40 per cent of defended seats. In Scottish elections, party falls to five MSPs; in Wales, party loses one AM to end with five. Referendum on replacing first-past-the-post with the alternative vote lost by margin of two to one.
2012 World’s first Green Investment Bank created.
2012-13 Cabinet member Chris Huhne resigns after being charged by the police with lying over a speeding case. He was convicted in 2013, triggering a by-election in Eastleigh in which the Liberal Democrats manage to hold the seat.
2013 Lynne Featherstone’s work to legalise same-sex marriage culminates in Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act. Jo Swinson and Nick Clegg introduce plans for men and women to be able to share parental leave (comes into force in 2015).
2014 European Parliament elections see Liberal Democrats lose all but one of the party’s seats. Attempts to oust Nick Clegg as party leader in the aftermath fail to gain momentum and he remains leader.
2015 Liberal Democrats fall to 8% of the votes and just 8 MPs, all white men. Amongst the defeated MPs is Steve Webb, who in 2010-15 became Britain’s longest-serving Pensions Minister, oversaw the introduction of auto-enrollment and introduced a new single-tier pension. Nick Clegg resigns as party leader. Tim Farron beats Norman Lamb in the leadership contest to succeed him.
2016 Britain votes for Brexit in a referendum, despite the Liberal Democrat opposition. Brexit becomes the defining issue for the party in subsequent years.
2017 Tim Farron resigns as party leader after the Liberal Democrat vote share falls further at the general election, although the party’s number of MPs increases from 8 to 12.
2019 The Liberal Democrat make record-breaking gains in the local elections and beat Labour and the Conservatives in the popular vote in the European Parliament elections. However, party leader Jo Swinson loses her seat in the December general election, where the party’s vote goes up but the number of MPs goes down. As a result of the Conservative election victory, Brexit goes ahead.
For a more detailed history of the Liberals, SDP and Liberal Democrats, see the one volume history Peace, Reform and Liberation: A History of Liberal Politics in Britain 1679-2011.
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