The Persistence of the British Liberals

Americans hardly ever pay attention to electioneering in other countries. But it’s hard not to gape at the Liberal Democrats’ surge last week with their leader’s JFK-like debate performance.  Nick Clegg’s success won’t lead him to the top job but makes a  hung parliament far more likely.  In any respect, his  breakthrough last Thursday was a key televisual event likely to be a set-piece in future British histories.

Taking a long view, it’s the differences between our two countries’ politics that stand out. The British Liberals have (with some modifications) been around as a third party for most of the twentieth century, a trend that the UK parliamentary system has made possible.  Our own system killed the Whigs and the Populists dead as soon as it became clear that the two “major” parties had a lock on the winner-take-all presidency.

The deeper history of the British Liberals reveals even starker differences.  Founded in 1859, they had their day in the sun under Gladstone and then faltered after Lloyd George.  They soldiered on with a particularly developed sense of continuing relevance (even as most voters thought otherwise).  This was mixed with a pretty strong collective consciousness of their past, nurtured by archive-based historical work on party history.

The two main U.S. parties have likewise persisted but have lacked the same stable sense of who they were.  To say the least. To make the point quickly, compare the electoral map of the 1860 and the 2004 elections.  Same two parties.  But an almost total switch in geographical alignments.  And a similarly dramatic about-face in some of the most important matters of ideology.

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