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National Liberal Party (UK, 1931)

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Title: National Liberal Party (UK, 1931)  
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National Liberal Party (UK, 1931)

National Liberal Party
Leader Sir John Simon 1931-40
Ernest Brown 1940-45
Founded 1931
Dissolved 1968
Split from Liberal Party
Merged into Conservative Party
Ideology Liberal conservatism
National liberalism
Politics of United Kingdom
Political parties

The National Liberal Party, known until 1948 as the Liberal National Party, was a liberal political party in the United Kingdom from 1931 to 1968. It broke away from the Liberal Party, and later merged with the Conservative Party.


The Liberal Nationals evolved as a distinctive group within the Liberal Party when the main body of Liberals were maintaining in office the second National Liberal Party) resigned their party's whip and sat as independents.

When the Labour Government was replaced by a makeshift, emergency (though to prove long-lasting) National Government in August 1931, dissident Liberals were temporarily reconciled with the rest of their party within it but in the next two months the party's acting leader, Herbert Samuel, came close to resigning from the government over the National Government's proposal to call a snap general election, fearing that it would lead to a majority for the Conservatives and the abolition of free trade. However, he was undermined by the willingness of those Liberals such as Simon - who in extremis would support protectionism - to continue to support the National Government and even to take the vacant offices to ensure it retained a broad party base. Samuel was welcomed back into the new National Government subject to an agreed concession to fight the general election on a separate Liberal Party manifesto, but staunch supporters of the National Government were prepared to repudiate free trade.

Fractionalisation of the Liberal Party in 1931

Witnessing the rise of cheap foreign goods, the party split over how they would negotiate over ardent Conservative

Following the election, Liberals following John Simon formally repudiated the official Liberal Party in Parliament and operated to all extents and purposes as a separate party group, though they did not become fully recognised as one immediately. In 1932 the "Samuelite" Liberals resigned from the government over the result of the Ottawa Conference - the introduction of a series of tariff agreements - though they continued to support the National Government from the backbenches. By 1933 they had abandoned it completely and crossed the floor of the House of Commons, leaving the Liberal Nationals supporting the government. The two groupings were now completely separated, though some Liberal MPs like Robert Bernays remained on the Government benches before officially joining the Liberal Nationals, and other MPs maintained links across the floor.

Walter Runciman, a key Liberal National but President of the Liberal Party's Federation until 1936

Within the wider party the split was not so clear. Liberal Associations who supported Liberal National candidates remained affiliated to the Second World War when the Liberal Nationals suffered a stream of defectors who joined either the independent Liberals or the Conservatives or else became non-party supporters of the government. In 1940 the National Government was replaced by an all-party coalition led by Winston Churchill and the Liberal Nationals were marginalised, with Simon "kicked upstairs" to become Lord Chancellor. The party's new leader, Ernest Brown, was only occasionally accorded the status of a party leader within the coalition and otherwise faced questions over the future of the party. Proposals emerged again for the party to reunite with the independent Liberals, but these foundered on Brown's insistence of supporting a revival of the National Government once the Coalition broke up, which the independent Liberals rejected.

After both parties' drubbing and the Huddersfield rival Liberal associations began co-operating and eventually merging as avowed Liberal associations. At the same time there were calls from devout Liberal Nationals for that entire wing to fully unify with the Conservatives, with whom they had co-operated closely and received numerous ministerial posts in the four National Governments while rarely expressing any overt divergence of opinion, and from whom few political commentators discerned a difference.

Merger with the Conservative Party

In May 1947 the 'Woolton-Teviot' agreement between Randolph Churchill) after 1950 used the National Liberal name when going forward as candidates in some wards and constituencies.

Immediate Consequences for the Liberal Party

Even more than before 1947, the appearance of national Liberal candidates aggrieved the Liberal Party. They saw this as a blatant misappropriation by the Conservative Party of not only much of their funds but also their historic party name while the Liberals themselves were in a parlous political position. In 1951 it was only thanks to fraught local arrangements that five of their six remaining MPs were elected in the absence of a Conservative candidate. Two of these elections were achieved by formal local pacts, whereby only one Liberal or Conservative candidate would stand in each different constituency in Bolton and Huddersfield). Increasingly, with electoral deposits expensive and electoral support low, the Liberal Party fielded few candidates, especially in 1951 and 1955 when the party had barely mustered over 100 to stand for Parliament.

Consequences for the National Liberal Party

While the Liberal Party struggled to survive, National Liberals managed to win 17 seats in the 1950 general election. In subsequent elections their numbers increased to 19 (1951), 21 (1955) and 19 (1959) continuing their new status as the larger of the two Liberal groupings in Parliament.

During this period two National Liberals held cabinet rank plus one who sat as a "Liberal":

  • John Scott Maclay, 1st Viscount Muirshiel was Secretary of State for Scotland from 1957 to 1962 until sacked from office (with six other Cabinet ministers) by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan.
  • Charles Hill, best known for his work in the 1940s as the 'Radio Doctor' for his nutritional advice on the BBC Home Service, stood as an Independent in the 1945 general election but then won the Luton parliamentary seat as Conservative and National Liberal in 1950. He was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Food in 1951 and from 1957 to 1961 he was Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and from 1961 he was to Minister of Housing and Local Government and Welsh Affairs. He lost his place in the Cabinet in Harold Macmillan's reshuffle in 1962.
  • Pembrokeshire 1922-1951 had moved away from the Liberal Party by 1946 (though in 1945 he was separately offered the job of party leader by the Liberals and Liberal Nationals). He sat as a 'Liberal' yet joined Winston Churchill on the opposition frontbench. Unusually, he never formally joined the National Liberals, and while not sitting on the government benches in 1931, had been independent of the Liberal Party whip since that year and ultimately accepted a junior post in the Neville Chamberlain National Government administration in 1939. He served as Home Secretary from 1954 to 1957.


However, by the early 1960s it was obvious there was very little point to the continued separate political existence of the National Liberals. A joint Conservative and National Liberal candidate gained a seat in a by-election in Brighouse and Spenborough in 1960. The future Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine - who was added to the Conservative Candidates' List while still at Oxford by Edward Heath (then a whip) - stood as a National Liberal for Gower in 1959, then went on to stand as a Conservative for more winnable seats in the 1960s.

After 1962 the party lacked a senior government presence and with the retirement or death of former leaders, only six with the National Liberal label were elected in the general election of 1964. A further four who had sat with this label preferred to be elected under a 'straight' Conservative label. The post of chairman of the parliamentary party was filled by the former junior minister David Renton, the MP for Huntingdon since 1945, with veteran National Liberal Herbert Butcher (who sat for the seat of Holland with Boston) remaining their chief whip. Butcher retired before the 1966 general election, in which the National Liberals were reduced to just three MPs (including the future Conservative Party cabinet minister John Nott). Two others (Joan Vickers and John Osborn) were elected as Conservatives. With so few MPs, they agreed to give up a room at the Westminster Parliament that they had used for their meetings to the Liberal party.

In their last years, the party was used by architect John Poulson as a way into politics while not being fully committed to the Conservatives. Poulson, who was Chairman of the National Liberal Council's Executive Committee from 1964, had little political skill, and his speeches were written by a Scottish Office civil servant, George Pottinger, who was on his payroll. However, the party had lost most of its senior members and in 1968 the remaining National Liberals, still led by David Renton, assimilated completely into the Conservative Party.


Electoral performance

Election Number of votes Share of votes Seats Outcome of election
1931 809,302 3.7%
35 / 615
National Government victory
1935 784,608 3.7%
33 / 615
National Government victory
1945 686,652 2.9%
11 / 640
Labour victory
1950 985,343 3.4%
16 / 625
Labour victory
1951 1,058,1381 3.7%
19 / 625
Conservative victory
1955 842,113 3.1%
21 / 630
Conservative victory
1959 765,794 2.7%
20 / 630
Conservative victory
1964 326,130 1.2%
6 / 630
Labour victory
1966 149,779 0.5%
3 / 630
Labour victory


In October 2013 Conservative MP Nicholas Boles gave a speech where he suggested that the National Liberal Party be revived as an affiliate of the Conservative Party.[1]

See also


  1. ^ "Speech by Nick Boles MP". Retrieved 2014-08-01. 


  • The History of the Liberal Party 1895-1970, by Roy Douglas (Sidgwick & Jackson 1971)
  • A Short History of the Liberal Party 1900-92, by Chris Cook (Macmillan Press 1993)
  • Liberals in Schism: A History of the National Liberal Party, by David Dutton (London; I. B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2008)
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