For a party that had last held power in 1922 and was not to re-enter government until 2010, the Liberals did remarkably well in getting their 1979 proposals implemented. Manifesto pledges to reduce income tax (to rates between 20% and 50%), introduce a Freedom of Information act, a Bill of Rights and tax self-assessment, provide nursery-school places for all, connect schools with industry, decentralise power to Scotland and Wales, set up Parliamentary Select Committees, promote sustainable energy research, deter car use in city centres and build a Channel Tunnel were all implemented by subsequent Labour or Conservative governments.
Four years later, Liberal leader David Steel would famously tell his conference audience to “go back to your constituencies and prepare for government”. One reason the preparations proved premature was the propensity of other governments to steal their best ideas.
But the 1979 Manifesto’s central theme was that the era of those two big parties was over, and their duopoly on power had to be broken before the country could move forward. Whereas Thatcherites on the right and Bennites on the left condemned what they viewed as a convergence of Conservative and Labour lines, the Liberals saw two extremes - whose alternation, rooted in “adversary class politics”, blocked any constructive change.
As proof that a two-winged parliament can’t always fly, the Liberals could point to the innovative pledges from 1979 that are still no closer to implementation. Big ideas still on the table three decades later include merging the tax and benefit systems through a Credit Income Tax, integration of housing and workplaces to cut commuter travel, and reforming the electoral system to the Single Transferable Vote.
While these schemes’ times have yet to come, others may have been left too late. The Liberals wanted to ring-fence North Sea oil revenue for long-term investment, but more than half of it has now been extracted and fed straight into the Treasury, mostly for current spending. “A Land Bank to help new entrants to farming” might have offered a solution to problems of rural poverty and rising food-trade deficit, but spare farmland has instead been snapped-up by financial speculators, who rarely step down from their distinctly Chelsea tractors.
Caught between competing visions
Although Liberals expected in 1979 to maintain the balance of power, having prevented a Labour or Conservative majority in 1974, the electorate was about to turn sharply right. David Steel’s difficulty in maintaining the momentum achieved by Jeremy Thorpe five years earlier says much about the party-positional problem British Liberals have faced for almost a century. In the European tradition, to be Liberal is to stand for individual freedom, from the predations of government and impositions by other people (individuals, or the ‘legal person’ of the large corporation). But this was the approach that Margaret Thatcher had already started to adopt, later to be branded ‘neo-liberalism’, with a particular focus on free markets and unrestricted private property rights.
From a North American perspective, to be Liberal is to stand for levels of equality, economic efficiency and basic rights which often require central government intervention. It soon became a term used by president Ronald Reagan against Democratic opponents, who would be out of the Oval office until 1992.
With Labour being pulled leftwards and the Conservatives rightwards after the economic misery of the 1970s, British Liberals sought to steer a middle course between these rival definitions. It proved to be a rocky road, on which they eventually met the self-exiled Labour moderates who had regrouped as Social Democrats. Unfortunately for the new Alliance, the big parties turned around when they had strayed too close to the edge, and their leaders now compete to reclaim the centre ground. The smaller groups already camped there still find political life uncomfortably squeezed.
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