National Liberal Party (UK, 1931)

National Liberal Party (UK, 1931)
National Liberal Party
Leader Sir John Simon, David Renton
Founded 1931
Dissolved 1968
Split from Liberal Party
Merged into Conservative Party
Ideology Liberal Conservatism
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 Labour government of Ramsay MacDonald, who lacked a majority in Parliament. A growing number of Liberal MPs led by Sir John Simon declared their total opposition to this policy and began to co-operate more closely with the Conservative Party, even advocating a policy of replacing free trade with tariffs, an anathema to many traditional Liberals. By June 1931, three Liberal MPs including Simon, Ernest Brown and Robert Hutchison (an ex-Lloyd George supporting coalitionist/National Liberal) resigned their party's whip and sat as independents.

When the Labour Government was replaced by a National Government in August 1931, dissident Liberals were temporarily reconciled with the rest of their party within the coalition, but in the following two months the acting Liberal leader, Herbert Samuel, came close to resigning from the government over proposals 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 other Liberals such as Sir John Simon to continue to support the National Government and even take the vacant offices to ensure it retained a broad party base. Samuel was rescued by a proposal to fight the general election on separate manifestoes, but the Liberal Nationals were prepared to repudiate free trade, and so two separate groups of Liberals who supported the National Government evolved in the 1931 general election. (A third group under the official leader, David Lloyd George, also emerged, known as "Independent Liberals", who opposed the National Government completely, but this had few adherents amongst prominent Liberals beyond Lloyd George's own relatives. In 1935 they reunited with the "Samuelite" Liberals.)

Following the election, the 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 Ottawa Conference and the introduction of a series of tariff agreements, though they continued to support the National Government from the backbenches. The following year they 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 eventually joining the Liberal Nationals, and other MPs maintained links across the floor.

Within the wider party the split was not so clear. Liberal Associations who supported Liberal National candidates remained affiliated to the National Liberal Federation, the mainstream body for the official party, until that body was dissolved in 1936, while one Liberal National Cabinet Minister, Walter Runciman, remained President of the National Liberal Federation even after the two groups were on opposite sides of the Commons. The Liberal National Council, the main national organ for the extra parliamentary party, was not founded until 1936. However there were increasing divisions when some Liberal associations endorsed other National candidates in elections, especially by-elections, and on several occasions independent Liberals would come forward to challenge a National candidate endorsed by the local association that called itself 'Liberal' but was in truth actually Liberal National.

Throughout the 1930s and 1940s there were a number of proposals to reunite the two Liberal parties, but these routinely foundered on the question of continued support for the National Government. Matters peaked during 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 the Labour Party's victory in the 1945 general election, there were renewed attempts at reuniting. At Westminster the independent Liberals were in a shattered state, with the tiny Parliamentary Party representing all shades of opinion and it was doubtful that the new leader, Clement Davies (himself a former Liberal National who had defected back to the independent Liberals) could carry all of his colleagues into a united party. Only in London (where neither Liberal party had any MPs) were the two reunited at regional organisational level, although in some individual boroughs and constituencies such as Huddersfield rival Liberal associations began co-operating and eventually merging as avowed Liberal associations. At the same time there were calls for the Liberal Nationals to fully unify with the Conservatives, with whom they had co-operated closely for many years, to the point where few political commentators could tell the difference.

In May 1947 the 'Woolton-Teviot' agreement between Lord Woolton (for the Conservatives) and Lord Teviot (for the Liberal Nationals) resulted in the two parties merging at the constituency level. The Liberal Nationals also changed their name to National Liberals at this stage. (Their reluctance to take this label originally is said to be a reaction to Lloyd George's use of the name for the earlier National Liberal Party in the 1920s.)

The National Liberals therefore fought the next five British general elections as allies of the Conservative Party. To confuse matters, their candidates stood for election with a variety of names including 'National Liberal', 'National Liberal and Conservative', 'Liberal and Conservative' and so on. In addition a number of Conservatives with little or no former connection to the original party (including Randolph Churchill) added the National Liberal name when going forward as candidates.

The appearance of the National Liberal candidates did not go down too well with an aggrieved Liberal Party. They saw this as a blatant attempt by the Conservative Party to appropriate their historic party name but the Liberals themselves were in a parlous political position. In 1951, thanks to local electoral pacts, no fewer than five of the six remaining Liberal MPs were elected in the absence of a Conservative candidate, and, in two cases, by the operation of formal local electoral pacts in (Bolton and Huddersfield). The Liberals were not able to field many candidates for election either, especially in 1951 and 1955 when the party had barely mustered over 100 to stand for Parliament.

While the Liberal Party struggled to survive, the 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) making them the larger of the two Liberal groupings in Parliament.

During this period three National Liberals held cabinet rank:

  • Gwilym Lloyd George, who had moved away from the Liberal Party by 1946 (though in 1945 he was separately offered the job of party leader by both the Liberals and Liberal Nationals). He sat as a 'Liberal' and joined Winston Churchill on the opposition Front Bench. Lloyd George appears to have never formerly joined the Liberal National/National Liberals but had been in effect independent of the Liberal mainstream since 1931 and in fact had accepted a junior post in the Neville Chamberlain National Government administration) in 1939. He served as Home Secretary from 1954 to 1957.
  • 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.


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 corrupt 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.

See also


  • 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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