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The Lost Party: Liberal Unionism, 1886-1895

By Ian James Cawood


This thesis seeks to analyse the political philosophy, organisation and historical significance of the Liberal Unionist Party, which was created following the first\ud Home Rule debate of 1886 and the subsequent general election in which\ud Unionists stood against ‘Separatists.’ The Liberal Unionist Party has rarely been taken seriously as an electoral force by political historians, who see the party as a collection of peers, intellectuals and lawyers, who objected to Home Rule from a desire to maintain the supremacy of Parliament and the rule of the law in the face of the burgeoning forces of nationalism, democracy and class-based politics. Given its elitist nature, the party is perceived as having failed to build a strong electoral base among the newly enfranchised workers and to have willingly succumbed to ‘fusion’ with the Conservative Party due to the parties’ fellow-feeling on issues of imperial expansion and the fear of socialism.\ud This thesis offers an alternative interpretation of the Liberal Unionists as a diverse group of liberals, who formed an electoral alliance with the Conservative Party largely from political necessity rather than ideological affinity. Committed to the maintenance of a political culture of strong regional identity, independence of political conscience and concepts of individual liberty, the Party only reluctantly engaged with the centralised machine politics that had begun to emerge after the electoral reforms of the 1870s and 1880s. Due to this, the Party barely escaped an electoral debacle in 1892, but reformed itself and its electioneering tactics and was perhaps the crucial force in the Unionist landslide of August 1895. The thesis also suggests why the Party swiftly declined as an independent force after this triumph and thereby came to be seen by most twentieth-century historians as a mere ‘revolt of the Whigs.

Publisher: University of Leicester
Year: 2010
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