Who was the greatest British Liberal?

by Stephen Tall on July 26, 2007

Readers of Lib Dem News will have had their attention drawn by Lord Tom McNally to a poll asking: who is the Greatest British Liberal?

(The question is being posed by The Journal of Liberal History, and voting is open only to members – you can join here.)

Here’s the short-list of 15 drawn up by the Liberal History Group’s executive committee:

Asquith, Herbert Henry
Beveridge, William
Bonham Carter, Violet
Campbell-Bannerman, Henry
Cobden, Richard
Fawcett, Millicent Garrett
Fox, Charles James
Gladstone, William Ewart
Grimond, Jo
Jenkins, Roy
Keynes, John Maynard
Locke, John
Lloyd George, David
Mill, John Stuart
Russell, John

(You had to be dead to qualify.)

The New Statesman has an interesting feature on its blog here, written by York Membery, noting that only two women make the short-list, and expressing surprise at the omission of Charles Dickens, Winston Churchill, WE Forster, T Hobhouse and Joseph Rowntree.

Though, unlike York, I don’t doubt the rationale of including Roy Jenkins – oh, for the days of a liberal home secretary, regardless of party label.

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Darwin, Charles. A whig. They evolved into the Liberals.

by Peter McGrath on July 26, 2007 at 2:44 pm. Reply #

Up to a point, lord copper. Its a common view that the Whig’s are the Liberal Party’s antecedents (largely because they were not the Tories) but they were not a party in the recognised sense held together by a common (in this case liberal) philosophy.

It shows the problem with including people in the list who pre-date the formation of something more recognisable as a party in the 1860s. Similarly why not include Robert Peel? He would have called himself a Tory but his followers went on to form the core of the Liberal Party.

No Mary Wollstencroft either. Nor Harriet Taylor.

by Ed on July 26, 2007 at 3:32 pm. Reply #

No Adam Smith? :-/

by NN on July 26, 2007 at 3:38 pm. Reply #

Cyril Smith is still going strong otherwise he would qualify.


by Dave Hennigan on July 26, 2007 at 4:00 pm. Reply #

I have a horrible feeling Lloyd George will win because of the strange way people idolise him (personally I think he was a disaster for the Liberal Party…)

Personally I’d say Cobden from that list. Or possibly Locke.

by Tristan Mills on July 26, 2007 at 4:12 pm. Reply #

Agree regarding Adam Smith. Agree with Tristan about Locke. Is Tom Paine not considered liberal? Not many can claim to have been instrumental in the creation of two “liberal” republics! But maybe people don’t count him as “British”?

by Jock on July 26, 2007 at 4:59 pm. Reply #

I can’t see why the New Statesman is suggesting Charles Dickens. However great a writer he was, the basic political philosophy underlying most of his books is a sort of paternalistic Toryism. Ultimately, the message of most of his books is not that there should any fundamental change to society, but that the rich and powerful should act more virtuously. For anyone who hasn’t done so, I’d recommend reading George Orwell’s essay on him.

Equally, I fail to see the argument for Winston Churchill. Being a great man, and spending some years as a Liberal MP, is not the same as being a great Liberal.

I do agree with NN and Jock on Adam Smith and Thomas Paine though.

by Jeremy Sanders on July 26, 2007 at 5:28 pm. Reply #

Beveridge for me!

by Chris Black on July 26, 2007 at 6:03 pm. Reply #

Whilst I would agree with Jeremy on Churchill, I would say that from his writings and speeches when he was a liberal, he really was a Liberal.

by Jock on July 26, 2007 at 6:51 pm. Reply #

Without a doubt Cyril Smith was the biggest Liberal

by rochdale cowboy on July 26, 2007 at 7:17 pm. Reply #

Cyril Smith is in favour of hanging and flogging people, but he does have liberal views on other matters. So his credentials are best described as “mixed”.

Herbert Asquith and David Lloyd George should be excluded for the simple reason that they led Britain into the unnecessary and disastrous bloodbath of the First World War.

John Locke argued that land should be owned by the people who live on it and/or work it. Locke’s ideas were applied in Ireland in the 1870s, but still today much or rural Britain is in the hands of aristocratic landlords. We have only really had land reform in urban Britain. So Locke speaks to the modern condition. Perhaps we can call Locke the “primaeval Liberal”.

Beveridge and Keynes, though members of the Liberal Party, were really social democrats of the Attlee/Wilson/Callaghan school.

Roy Jenkins is perhaps the classic modern social liberal. He presided over the abolition of the death penalty and homosexual law reform, while promoting international cooperation and opposing narrow nationalism.

My vote would go to Thomas Paine, who stood up to tyrrany pretty much as a one-man band and advocated free speech, gender equality and secularism (was he in favour of extending the franchise – I forget?).

by Angus Huck on July 26, 2007 at 7:36 pm. Reply #

H. H. Asquith and David Lloyd George are also the main responsibles for the division of Liberal Party, and thus also for about 90 years of opposition.

I would also prefer, that the greatest liberal would rather be some liberal thinker, like John Locke, Adam Smith or John Stuart Mill than some politician, who probably has been more compromised in his liberalism.

by Ann on July 26, 2007 at 7:53 pm. Reply #

My vote went to Keynes, Beverage second.
If he had been born 20 years earlier, he might have saved the Liberal Party from losing out to the Labour party, which caused a fatal division on the left in British politics and under our electoral system made the 20th Century a Conservative century.
Even so his economic theories rescued the UK from the laissez faire economics of the 1930s that led to the great depression to full employment in the late 1940s, 50s and 60s, AND created a more equal society to go with it.
He did more for the working class than any Marxist ever managed. Yet how many working class people have ever heard of him?
And he was a member of the Liberal party despite what anyone else might say.

by Geoffrey Payne on July 26, 2007 at 7:57 pm. Reply #

Geoffrey Payne, the interventionist politics, which also Keynes advocated, caused the Great Depression. Read it here: http://www.mackinac.org/article.aspx?ID=4013

by Daniel on July 26, 2007 at 8:30 pm. Reply #

I think it has to be John Stuart Mill simply for the reason that he, it seems to me, was the first person to really create a cohesive liberal philosophy; previous thinkers established basic tenets, but he took it further than anyone else and created the joined-up philosophy we now call liberalism.

by Leo Watkins on July 26, 2007 at 10:44 pm. Reply #

In the absence of John Cooke I’d have to go for Roy because of the steps he took increasing freedom of expression.

Though it is slightly unfair to put the founder of liberalism as a coherent creed on the list!

by Hywel Morgan on July 26, 2007 at 10:59 pm. Reply #

If it is to be a politician, I would have to go with Gladstone. Under him the Liberals dominated British politics in the latter C19th.

But I agree with Ann that I’d rather it was a thinker than a politician. “Liberal politician” is almost an oxymoron.

With that list I’d have to go with Mill. But I agree that the absence of Adam Smith is a disgrace.

And just to start a fight, what about Milton Friedman?

by Tom Papworth on July 26, 2007 at 11:31 pm. Reply #

Leo Watkins, the same can be said about several thinker before and after Mill, depending on what you think was cohesive liberal philosophy. And Mill owes much to the less known German philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, who he mentions several time in “On Liberty”. And in his later days Mill expressed doubts about liberalism.

But it remains, that Locke created the philosophical foundations of liberalism.

Tom Papworth, Milton Friedman was a great liberal, but they are searching for the greatest British liberal, and he was American. But Friedrich Hayek lived and worked for some time in Britain. Then, why not K. R. von Popper or Isaiah Berlin?

by Terry on July 27, 2007 at 12:08 am. Reply #

Sorry, I meant Friedrich Hayek and K. R. Popper. Time to go to bed…

by Terry on July 27, 2007 at 12:11 am. Reply #

Ann, John Stuart Mill was a politician as well as a thinker – he had a spell as MP for, I think, Westminster.
I’m another who would like to see Tom Paine in there, especially given some of the odd names which have been included – Campbell Bannerman, John Russell and Violet Bonham Carter? I don’t think so. I’d have rather seen another Russell in there – Conrad.
Of the names which are on the list, I think it has to be Mill, closely followed by Keynes and Lloyd George.

by Bernard Salmon on July 27, 2007 at 9:28 am. Reply #

Mill was a Member of Parliament so in what sense wasnt he a politician?

Lloyd George, Gladstone and Mill (together with Harriet Taylor) between them pretty much define what British liberalism became (including all of its contradictions!) So I would say it has to be one of those three whether or not you agree with their policies.

After the Second World War, western liberalism started to evolve again to take on post-material concerns and the only person on the list who could lay claim to that agenda is Jenkins with his reforms at the Home Office (and arguably his role in the revival of electoral liberalism from 1981). BUT he is far too much of the establishment to be the figurehead for that movement. In fact it is almost oxymoronic to suggest an individual should be – maybe the best representative of ‘modern’ liberalism should be a voluntary organisation such as Shelter!

by Ed on July 27, 2007 at 10:16 am. Reply #

I’m pretty much with Ian, and am actually surprised that the others are even in contention; yes, a very nice list, and including Locke is a nice touch, but ultimately there is Mill, and then there are the rest, and Mill beats all.

But then, us liberal socialists have always had a bit of a soft spot for the man…

by MatGB on July 27, 2007 at 11:03 am. Reply #

Ed, Mill is better known as thinker as politician. Everybody (well, at least every liberal, I assume) knows “On Liberty”, but hardly anybody knows what he did as an MP.

by Terry on July 27, 2007 at 11:51 am. Reply #

God, I know little about Liberal history. What would be a good book for me to read? And should I buy it (a) from a local independent bookshop, or (b) using the Amazon button on the LibDem website – this ensuring the party gets a cut?

by Stuart on July 27, 2007 at 2:34 pm. Reply #

Stuart: take a look at http://www.libdems.org.uk/party/history.html – and yes please, do use the party’s Amazon deal.

by Mark Pack on July 27, 2007 at 2:53 pm. Reply #

Most of the philosophy behind LVT is based on Locke of course, so I’m happy with him out of the list on offer! Locke is the first mugshot in the Liberal economics pantheon at http://www.1909.org.uk/ for that reason – “proto-liberal”…:)

by Jock on July 27, 2007 at 3:26 pm. Reply #

Vote Fawcett!

Oh, no, wrong one.

Locke for me then.

by Neil Fawcett on July 27, 2007 at 3:55 pm. Reply #

A lot of interesting points coming up in this very important discussion. I have a few points.
1. I would put John Locke, Gladstone and Mill as the leading contenders with Asquith as the best other. Adam Smith, Jeremy Bentham and James Harrington as the best outside the list.
2. Defining the first liberal thinker is always open to controversy, but Locke is a strong candidate not just for Britain bu the world. Every variety of liberalism can find something in there so he is unifying candidate.
3. Gladstone, as everyone knows he dominated British liberalism, Victorian politics as a whole over decades. It should also be noted that he was great symbol beyond Britain of liberalism. Max Weber (a candidate for greatest German liberal) gives his exemplary status in his famous essay on the Vocation of Politics, for example.
4. Mill, like Locke there is something for all schools of liberalism there. The implication that ‘On Liberty’ is a rerun of Humboldt is unfair. Humboldt was an influence, but there are certainly differences. Mill was also strongly influenced by Tocqueville (strong candidate for greatest French liberal) and the utilitarian philosophers Jeremy Bentham, and his father James Mill.
5. James Harrington was a 17th century republican (in the sense of a state based on popular will not in the more recent sense of a state without a monarchy), prior to Locke (who is sometimes described as a republican as well). He had a strong influence on radical Whig and Republican thought in Britain and America in the 17th and 18th centuries and was certainly a strong influence on the thinking behind the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution.
6. Bentham was the first distinctly Utilitarian philosopher. Like Gladstone he moved from Toryism to Liberalism because he found that Tories don’t follow principles of universality and liberty consistently. An enormous influence on moral, political and legal philosopher. The author of many schemes for social reform.
7. Smith, not only a great economist, but author of a classic of moral philosophy (Theory of Moral Sentiments) along with work on law and literature.
8. Asquith was the PM when the great reforms of the Liberals from 1906 where implemented. Never left Nineteenth Century liberalism behind and was never a demagogue or a populist. He saw the need to extend liberalism into the social sphere without abandoning limited state free market ideas. Very loyal to the Liberal Party (unlike the demagogue and egomaniac Lloyd George). Though he wasn’t a theorist, he was a distinguished lawyer and operated consistently from liberal principles, using a great legal and cultured mind to turn them into policy.
9. Popper made a great impact as a political thinker in his time, but has not left a lasting impact on political theory. His major influence has been on politicians. Liberal theory left him behind long ago, particularly after the great revival in English language political philosophy which followed the 1971 publication o *Theory of Justice* by the American John Rawls. Hayek is more important as a political thinker (not that I’m his greatest fan). Berlin’s major legacy is on history of ideas, not political theory. is distinction between negative and positive liberty is often quoted, but is only a way of referring to debates in 18th/19th century political thought, it’s not an original idea.
10. On Locke and Land Value Taxation. It’s stretching Locke a very long way to make him the prophet of LVA. Locke certainly never advocated redistribution of landed property. He argued that the ORIGIN of property is in the mingling of labour with land. Some Austrian school followers of Hayek and Mises think Locke AND Smith had a proto-Marxist view of property and labour value because of that same aspect of Locke, which has some apparent equivalents in Smith. That is to isolate a part of the thought and impose the wrong context.

by Barry Stocker on July 27, 2007 at 6:45 pm. Reply #

OT but reading this really made me think about resurrecting the debate about just being called the “Liberal Party” again. Liberal is such a beatiful word.

The other OT thought that came to me was ” what on earth would this lot have thought if you showed them a Focus leaflet?”

Personally I think the short list should be Gladtone, Asquith, Keynes and Mill. A nice balance of politicans and thinkers and time period. I’d also be tempted by Lloyd George just for entertainment value. In terms of ommisions I though Archibald Sinclair might have sneaked in for keeping the guttering flame alive and if the 1832 Reform Act doesn’t get Earl Grey on the list then what does?

by David Morton on July 27, 2007 at 7:47 pm. Reply #

Barry Stocker, I have the understanding that those Austrian economists you refer to in your point 10. aren’t actually followers of Hayek and Mises, who were perhaps the best known representatives of the Austrian school, but of the less known Murray Rothbard, an anarcho-capitalist. Rothbard was himself a student of Mises, but unlike Rothbard, Mises never embrased anarchist views.

by Terry on July 27, 2007 at 9:42 pm. Reply #

BTW, I assume the greatest British Liberal is elected with STV system? 😉

by Terry on July 27, 2007 at 9:44 pm. Reply #

P.S. Barry Stocker on point 9:

Of course if we are searching for the greatest British Liberal, he doesn’t have to be a philosopher. A historian, like Isaiah Berlin, or let’s say Lord Acton, would do fine. And also many economists and politicians have been suggested.

Personally I disagree that Popper wouldn’t be actual anymore, or that he would have been replaced by Rawls. But actually I mentioned Hayek, Popper and Berlin only as possible great liberals who have immigrated to Britain. Milton Friedman would hardly qualify, as he never lived in Britain.

by Terry on July 27, 2007 at 9:54 pm. Reply #

Terry (at 31) has a point. We wouldn’t be good LibDems, would we, if we didn’t ask what the electoral system will be? I do sure hope it’s not FPTP.

by Stuart on July 27, 2007 at 10:35 pm. Reply #

In reply to Terry, yes I think it was Rothbard who read Locke and Smith as proto-Marxists, rather than Mises or Hayek. It is, however, worth noting that Hayek and Mises were not very interested in Smith. Rothbard’s view is rather an eccentric extreme, but it does at least draw attention to the fact that there were other free market economists in Smith’s era. I didn’t say anything about Anarchism in Mises. Since you mention it, Mises’s most famous followers Rothbard in the past and other like minded people at the Mises institute are at least in part anarcho-capitalist. They tend not to acknowledge a difference from Mises there (and Mises certainly does refer to the state though of a very minimal kind), but they do tend to concede a difference about refer to a ethics. Mises was a moral subjectivist who thought individuals choose any moral system and any are compatible with his thought. Rothbard etc refer to Natural law (a belief in an objective unified set of principles in morality and law). For these people, Natural Law is present in everyone and can therefore replace the state (though the inventors of Natural Law traditions which has Medieval and Ancient roots believed no such thing).
Yes we can consider historians. However, Macaulay is a much stronger candidate than Acton. Acton is an interesting figure but very focused on his catholic faith, and had at least one positions that most Lib Dems/Liberals of all parties and none would find abhorrent. Like the Rothbardites he though the Confederacy (southern states) should have won the Civil War. Indeed, Acton exchanged gushing letters with Robert E. Lee in which he swallowed Lee’s self-constructed image of chivalrous soldier and friend of the slaves. All based on the nonsensical claim that the secession was based on state rights not slavery, though before the secession the slave owning state were eager to use federal institutions to preserve and extend slavery.
On Rawls. I did not say that Rawls alone replaced Popper, I said that he started the revival of political theory in the English speaking world. Most people working in the field would agree that the field was moribund between and Rawls because of the way that logicallly based philosophy marginalised ethics and politics before Rawls. The revival after Rawls includes Robert Nozick’s capitalist Libertarian classic *Anarchy, State,and Utopia* in addition to much important work on more left kinds of liberalism. University syllabi and academic publications are not the only way of measuring a thinker’s importance but they are surely important. If Popper’s political theory is taught in a university it would normally be outside the philosophy department and normally outside the main political theory classes in the politics department. Recent publications on Popper’s political theory are thin on the ground, certainly compared with Rawls or Nozick. Popper’s influence is on other kinds of people, e.g. George Soros, not people who are contributing to political theory. You may think that is enough, I don’t. Popper’s work on phil of science is another story. A similar thing with Berlin, hist of ideas great. Apart from John Gray very few have anything to say about Berlin as a political thinker. As a contribution to liberal thought Berlin’s historical work is less than Acton or Macauley, and lacks their feeling of history from a well defined political perspective. What was important in liberal theory before Rawls in Britain, and which had some influence on him, was the legal theory of C.L.A Hart and Patrick Devlin. Hart was a pure academic, Devlin was a judge and a campaigner as well. I’m not sure about the party views of either, but both made contributions of lasting importance to discussions of the foundations and limits of law, law and morality, law and state power. Surely it is Liberals who are most concerned with these issues.

by Barry Stocker on July 27, 2007 at 11:52 pm. Reply #

Sorry, should have said pol theory was moribund between MILL and Rawls.

by Barry Stocker on July 27, 2007 at 11:54 pm. Reply #

I’m sure, Barry, with regard to your earlier point 10. that you are familiar with “Locke’s Proviso” which is the philosophical basis for all Land Value Taxers from what I can see.

The idea that you create ownership in real property by binding your labour to it has to be tempered by the fact that everyone else in your society has to have some too. So the encloser of land has to leave “as much and as good” available for everyone else. Land value/rent is the monetary indicator of the breach of Locke’s Proviso and so taxing that Land Value is compesnsating the rest of the community for not having “as much and as good” to go round.

So far as I am aware every LVT theory goes back to this – because it is the beginnings of a theory of rent, so whether Locke himself would have understood or promoted LVT is not the point, but LVT is the logical extension of his ideas about land ownership/enclosure.

by jockox3 on July 28, 2007 at 6:37 pm. Reply #

Barry Stocker, I didn’t think you meant that Rawls alone replaced Popper. But my point was, that Popper isn’t replaced, he’s still relevant. It might be true, that he is in large part neglected in philosophy departments of universities, but then again, we are discussing here who was the greatest British Liberal, and that doesn’t necessarily need to be somebody who is taught in the philosophy departments of the universities.

I think that the concept of the open society which Popper developed (though didn’t create, that was up to Henri Bergson) is still timely. The ideas of Popper are still having an impact on several liberal parties in the world. The open society is even somehow part of the name of at least two of them. The Flemish VLD renamed itself “Open VLD” in reference to open society, and a minor party in Czech Republic is called “Party for the Open Society”. But in even more liberal parties have traces of Popper’s ideas in their programs. Soros… well, I didn’t even think about him, but of course he’s having some kind of impact in certain universities of some Eastern and Central European countries.

As for I. Berlin, Liberal International used to have a yearly lecture named after him, I’m not sure if they still have, but it means, that he still is highly regarded in the world organisation of liberal parties.

by Terry on July 29, 2007 at 12:38 pm. Reply #

i like robert nozick even though he aint British.

power to the people yeahh -maan


by nicaby on October 20, 2008 at 1:35 pm. Reply #

No Hobhouse? Shame.

by whelan on October 20, 2008 at 2:56 pm. Reply #

Definitley not Asquith! He held back women’s suffrage for years!!

However, I will have to get back to you on the rest!

by Jo Christie-Smith on October 20, 2008 at 4:59 pm. Reply #

Sorry, just had a look at he date of the original article! I was sitting there thinking to myself ‘Ddn’t we do this already a couple of years ago’

Right I’m off….

by Jo Christie-Smith on October 20, 2008 at 5:01 pm. Reply #

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