The Strange Rebirth of Liberal Unionism

The Strange Rebirth of Liberal Unionism


What is Liberal Unionism? Is the current CON Government, actually a Liberal Unionist one? 

Wikipedia has a history of the Liberal Unionist Party:. The most well-known Liberal Unionist arguably was Joseph Chamberlain, father of Neville, and for 19 days leader of the Opposition in 1906 after Balfour lost his seat in Manchester as part of the disastrous Conservative election defeat.

Conservatives have called themselves Unionist for a long period and indeed it was the official name until the 1970s but conservative Unionism (which backed the status quo) and liberal unionism (which saw the need to improve the Union by reform and intervention) are not the same.

Unionists came from outside the Conservative Party and one such was Winston Spencer Churchill, perhaps the greatest of all Liberal Unionists. He left the Liberals over policy toward India. Churchill was the epitome of the Imperialist – he would have formed a King’s Party to support Edward VIII but the Abdication stopped that. Indeed, so far was Churchill from being a Conservative the Party tried to de-select him as an MP and candidate.

Yet there are two words making up Liberal Unionism and while the emphasis may be on the second, the first is no less important or significant when considering the current Government. Joseph Chamberlain was a Birmingham MP as indeed were many of those who broke from the Liberals in the 1880s and 1890s. 

Joseph Chamberlain was a Radical in the 1880s, he authored The Radical Programme in 1885 and was described as a modern day “Jack Cade” by Stafford Northcote. He fiercely opposed the traditional landowning Conservatives and supported the Third Reform Bill which aimed to give rural labourers the vote.

Another figure at the time who, while never joining the Liberal Unionists, was supportive of their Imperial policies and who championed democracy within the Conservative Party was Lord Randolph Churchill, Winston’s father.

Winston Churchill was a Liberal Unionist through his love of Empire which was basically the Union in his day but Liberal Unionism wasn’t just the last vestige of the die-hard Imperialist but also a radical movement which prioritised reform at home especially in the lot of the working class.

For Boris Johnson, an admirer and biographer of Churchill. I’ve argued that for all he may call himself a Conservative, his policies are more akin to that of the Liberal Unionist.

There is a crucial difference (or seems to be) between the contemporary incarnation of Liberal Unionism and its early 20th Century predecessor. Joseph Chamberlain supported tariff reform and wanted taxes on imports. His opposition to the prevailing policy of free trade and no tariffs caused his resignation from the Cabinet in 1903.

Chamberlain did support a form of free trade within the Empire and especially between the primarily Anglo-Saxon components – he was a proponent of CANZUK more than a hundred years before some of the current Brexiteers. While the talk remains of Free Trade Agreements and the like with the EU, the main free trade agreements seem likely to be with the former Dominions. 

The modern Conservative Party stands foursquare behind the Union but recognises that Union has to evolve to the demands of the 21st Century – it has come to support a degree of devolution to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. 

Yet the biggest change with the coming of Boris Johnson has been the resurgence of the Liberal aspect of Liberal Unionism. As I hear notions of “levelling up”, I hear a distant echo of Joseph Chamberlain’s Radical programme which perhaps resonated in the industrial West Midlands then as it does in the North and Midlands today.

The December 2019 election win wasn’t just a win for the policy of Brexit but also a victory for a programme aimed at radical reform especially for areas of England which have felt themselves neglected by Westminster and a London-centric political elite.

I make no apology for calling the current Government Liberal Unionist for I believe that is the heart of Johnson’s vision, not a diluted form of one nation conservatism but a radical programme for change rooted in the Liberal Unionist past. The respect for and desire to rebuild relations with former Dominions is one aspect of that Liberal Unionist agenda but the domestic agenda is no different.

Perhaps the greatest Radical of them all is one Dominic Cummings – it may be the Liberal Unionist and the Radical will seek to transform Britain in a way not seen since the Thatcher second term more than thirty years ago.


Former Liberal Democrat member and long-suffering contributor to PB

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