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Rebuilding a Liberal Britain under John Major’s Premiership, the Liberal Democrat Party from 1990 to 1997

Muriel Cassel-Piccot
p. 335-350


The Major years were crucial years for the Liberal Democrat Party.  It was under Margaret Thatcher’s successor that the third party in British politics, under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown, managed to rebuild itself and even prosper. In 1997, the Liberal Democrats had forty-six seats in the House of Commons, and represented a political force that had to be reckoned with. This paper examines the strategies adopted by the party formed by the merging of the Liberal Party and the Social Democratic to position itself successfully on the British political stage. It also seeks to study the actions they undertook during these seven years.

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  • 1  The Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party.
  • 2  Ashdown, P., 2000, p. 50.

1When John Major replaced Margaret Thatcher at the head of the Conservative Party and of the British state on 23 November 1990, the Liberal Democrats were a two-year-old party, which was struggling to avoid disappearing from the British political scene. After the confused phase of merger between the Alliance parties1 following the general election of 1987, the liberal cause was in ruins and the new body that had emerged on 3 March 1988 was on the brink of oblivion. Paddy Ashdown, its new leader, famously confided in his diaries that he was ‘plagued by the nightmare that the party that had started with Gladstone [would] end with Ashdown’2. Indeed, the actual fusion between the Liberals and the SDP was followed by a period in which the new party was unable to improve its position. However, it gradually took its bearings and became a force to be reckoned with. 1990 marked a turning-point in the new party’s fortunes which, from then on, continued to improve until the 1997 general election and into the new millennium.

  • 3  This popular sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, one of the most famous in the history of Br (...)

2To put it more precisely, the new party succeeded in establishing itself again: it rebuilt itself after all the damage and misfortune it had suffered; it achieved success by winning votes at all electoral levels, which was evidence of its reconstruction, growth, and popularity; it developed into a political organisation with distinct beliefs and credible aims capable of attracting media attention; it tried to master the art of negotiation and adaptation to the best of its ability. In short, the Liberal Democrat Party managed to devise and carve a mission and a vision for itself, to reshape and project a new identity, to rebrand itself as professional, to adopt and implement effective strategies, and finally to acquire a reputation as a party of governance. Although at the 1990 Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher ridiculed the Liberal Democrat Party when she compared it to an ‘ex-parrot which has ceased to be’ referring to the Monty Python sketch3, the new party has proved to be alive and  influential.

The State of the Party in 1988 and 1989

  • 4  This was mainly due to a drop in membership, particularly amongst former SDP members. Walter, D., (...)
  • 5  Campbell, M., 2008, p. 114.
  • 6  Head-quarters of the Liberal Democrat Party.
  • 7  Seyd,P., Whiteley, P., Towards a More Responsible Two Party System, The British Party System Recon (...)
  • 8  Butler, D., Butler, G., 2006, p 127-128.

3When Paddy Ashdown defeated Alan Beith in the leadership contest, he took over a party that was so low that it could only either die or regenerate. The organisation was in severe financial trouble, having accumulated a debt of £600,0004. Eventually, the party managed to survive by being allowed to delay its payments, asking supporters for loans5, and making some staff redundant in Cowley Street6. Many supporters were disillusioned, with the result that support fell rapidly. Within the party, membership was reported to have reached 82,0007 in 1989 while among the public at large popularity in opinion polls sank to very low levels: from March 1988 to May 1989, the figures oscillated between 6 per cent and 9 per cent and in the following year, it even went down to 4 per cent8.

4Electorally, the party did not fare any better. The results of local elections were a great disappointment: in May 1989, the party gained 83 seats but lost 190.  Nationally, out of the 8 by-elections between 14 July 1988 and 15 June 1989, the party won none,  lost its deposit in 4,  came second only once at Epping Forest, and even came fifth at Glasgow Central. If by-elections were demoralising, Europeans elections were humiliating. The party fell into fourth place after the Greens, polling a mere 6.4 per cent of the votes on a turnout of 35.9 per cent; it failed to gain a single MEP, and lost 34 deposits. This was the worst election performance by a third party since the 1950s.

  • 9  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p. 11.

5The situation was made worse by bitter internal disagreement over the party’s choice of a name. It had been formed as the ‘Social and Liberal Democrats’ but in October 1988, the new leader persuaded the Conference to endorse ‘Democrats’. As the leader would later acknowledge in his diaries9, the new title disrupted the party, generating much dissatisfaction among former Liberals, which led to derision from the outside world. Another contentious issue of critical importance was unilateralism; it divided members between former unilateralist Liberals and the SDP strain in favour of multilateralism.

6The prospects of rejuvenation may have appeared even more uncertain as the new leader of the party, Paddy Ashdown, was a risky choice: as a former serviceman in the Royal Marines, he was atypical; he had had a short experience at Westminster and had been less immersed in politics at the national level than his contender, Alan Beith.

  • 10  The party was successively called the Social and Liberal Democrats, Democrats, and finally Liberal (...)

7In short, the party in its early days seemed to have been founded more on the ruins and weaknesses of its predecessors than on the strengths and potentialities of their political traditions. Its future looked uncertain. But at last, after troubled beginnings, the party started to show a united front. In the autumn of 1989, the dispute over the name of the party was settled following a ballot of members, which resulted in the party being called the ‘Liberal Democrats’. This third title10 allowed the new party to reveal and establish its genuine identity. At the 1989 conference, the old argument over defence was also settled when the delegates voted by a margin of 2 to 1 against unilateralism. Salvation was to come in 1990.

Building up Representative Strength

  • 11  D. Walter, D., op.cit., p.155.
  • 12  An English musician and aspirant politician (1940-1999) who founded the Official Monster Raving Lo (...)

8 It was at that time that the parties that had caused major concern to the Liberal Democrats, the continuing SDP under David Owen and the Greens, receded. On the one hand, the support for the Greens vanished as quickly as it had arisen: in the European election of 1989, they had swept into third place with 15 per cent of the votes but, by September 1990, they were down to 4 per cent in opinion polls. They were notably damaged by the claim of one of their leading figures, the sports commentator David Icke, that he was the son of God11. On the other hand, the ‘independent fourth force’ re-launched by David Owen in March 1988 suffered humiliating defeats. Although the Owenites had forced the SLD into third place in the Richmond by-election of February 1989, they later did poorly in the local election of May 1989 and came seventh in the Bootle by-election of May 1990, behind Screaming Lord Sutch12. By 1990 the main challengers to the Liberal Democrats for third party title were out of the way.

  • 13  Labour MP Terry Fields was jailed 60 days for refusing to pay the poll tax.
  • 14  Nigel Lawson resigned on 26 October 1989. He opposed the poll tax. His disagreement with Alan Walt (...)
  • 15  Geoffrey Howe resigned on 1 November 1990. He criticized Margaret Thatcher for undermining the pol (...)

9Moreover, the Liberal Democrats were able to profit at the expense of the Conservative Party whose support was eroding. The party in government had been trailing Labour in the polls since mid-1989. Externally, the government’s reputation for economic competence was hurt when inflation started to rise again; the problem was tackled by a tough interest rates policy which hurt home-owners, jobs and businesses. In addition, the unpopular poll tax instituted in 1989 was a deep source of worry; it was perceived as unfair and received massive opposition in the country with the jailing of people who refused to pay13. Internally, the party was shaken by a succession of ministerial resignations as a result of tensions within the Cabinet. They included those of Chancellor Nigel Lawson14 and Geoffrey Howe15. These ministerial departures owed much to disagreement over the European Community policy and the leadership style of Margaret Thatcher.

  • 16  A number of ministers among whom Tim Yeo had committed sexual indiscretions while John Major was c (...)

10In the first years of the next Parliament, the political context continued to be favourable to the Liberal Democrats with Black Wednesday (16 September 1992), when the pound fell out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism. Recession was biting, interest rates were falling, VAT on fuel was unpopular, public services seemed to have suffered and the government was divided over the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Moreover, the reputation of the Conservatives was further damaged by a series of personal scandals popularly called ‘sleaze’16.

  • 17  MacIver, D., 1996, p. 35.

11It was in this economic and political context that the Liberal Democrats managed to come back to the centre stage of national politics by winning local and by-elections. They made their first significant electoral impact on 18 October 1990 in Eastbourne when Ian Gow’s solidly conservative seat became vacant after he had been blown up in an IRA attack. David Bellotti won with a majority of 4,500 after a gap of three years since the last Alliance by-election gain. This victory convinced a proportion of Conservatives that Margaret Thatcher should not remain at the head of the state and that her leadership was no longer efficient. The next success came under John Major’s premiership, on 7 March 1991 in Ribble Valley, when another safe conservative seat went to the Liberal Democrats with a swing of 25 per cent.  The result of the election was seen as a virtual referendum on the poll tax17.  In the following year, local elections gave a new cause for celebration when the new party registered 520 net gains and won control of 19 councils. And before the end of the 50th Parliament, the Liberal Democrats made yet another advance by gaining Kincardine and Deedside on 7 November 1991. These victories were a sign that normal service had resumed, that the by-election machine was in working-order, and that the party was starting to enjoy a stronger base in the country.

  • 18  Kavanagh, D., 1997, p. 68.
  • 19  Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh, and  Littleborough and Saddleworth.

12In the next Parliament, by-elections continued to guarantee media attention; they turned out to be great opportunities for the Liberal Democrats who won the safe conservative seats of Newbury and Christchurch with large majorities in 1993. These triumphs were accompanied by 381 gains in the local elections and a share of power in 28 out of the 36 English County Councils18. Concurrently and unsurprisingly, support increased in the polls with voting intentions in the mid-twenties in 1993 and 1994. From 1992 to 1997, it can fairly be argued that the Liberal Democrats continued to perform well locally: by 1997, the party had more councillors in Britain than the Conservatives and controlled four times as many authorities as the Conservatives. It also gained 4 out of 8 conservative seats at by-elections19.

  • 20  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p. 572.
  • 21  Walter, D., op.cit., p. 163.

13However, these local and by-election successes were partly confirmed at general elections. For the Liberal Democrats, the 1992 election was a survival election: they knew that they were not ready for a breakthrough. At least, the party was united and solvent. Despite a drop in the percentage votes of 4.8 points, the traumatised party made a net gain of one seat. By-election seats went back to the Conservative Party but in Bath, Don Foster knocked Conservative Party Chairman Chris Patten out of the House of Commons. Although the party had seemed to be set for better results and felt disappointment, there were reasons for it to be partly satisfied and optimistic: it had not been wiped-out but had held its ground; it polled nearly six million votes, which was a reasonable achievement in comparison with the dark days of 1988 and 1989; it had a net gain of one seat, disregarding by-elections; its position was stronger than it had been at any time since its establishment20; and it had almost achieved the balance of power. If 1 per cent of the votes had been cast differently, the Conservatives would not have obtained an overall majority21. Moreover, the party could boast an increase in membership and slightly better morale.

  • 22  Somerset and Devon North and Cornwall and Plymouth West.
  • 23  Cook, R., 2004, p.223.
  • 24  Emma Nicholson defected to the Liberal Democrats on 29 December 1995 after long secret negotiation (...)
  • 25  Seyd, P., Whiteley, P., op.cit., 2000.

14Before the next general election in 1997, the Liberal Democrats had a new cause for celebration in 1994, when they won their first-ever seats22 in the European Parliament, narrowly missed 10 seats23, and were restored into third place. The party entered the 1997 general election with a solid local base, 26 MPs, two of whom24 had crossed the floor from the Conservative Party, and a membership of 100,00025. The prospects looked rather good but for opinion polls which were barely in double figures. However, the result of the election was a real breakthrough for the Liberal Democrats who managed to win 46 seats, their highest figure since 1929. At last, the party had gained popular recognition and respect in the country, and visibility in Parliament.

  • 26  Whiteley, P., Seyd, P., Billinghurst, A., 2006, p. 8.

15At this stage, two elements should be emphasized. First, grassroots activism and the grassroots organisation played a vital role in the growth of the Liberal Democrats’ representation at the local and national levels. With a majority of members involved in their local communities, the party’s successes were in part due to local campaigning26, the fruit of community politics. Community politics, which focuses on decentralisation and localism, is the tactic of fighting elections on issues of importance to small communities as the eventual road to power. Secondly, the Liberal Democrats had a formidable election operator: Chris Rennard. The man, convinced that even the most limited resources can achieve remarkable results, developed the strategies of strong appeal to tactical voting, of ruthlessly targeting key constituencies, and of claiming narrow majorities to squeeze third party votes. But apart from these electoral strategies, how did the party succeed in imposing itself again on the political scene?

Achieving Positive Distinctiveness

16 In order to impose itself, the party needed to emerge as a professional party that was different from the Conservative and Labour Parties, and that offered sensible alternative policies. In other words, it had to distinguish itself as a real contender on the British political scene.

17In the 1990s, the Liberal Democrats achieved a degree of credibility thanks to their leader, Paddy Ashdown who, at the time of the leadership election, had represented more of a gamble than Alan Beith. Although he faced a complex and arduous task, he revealed himself to be a great asset for the party, being able to enhance his reputation quickly. He had entered Parliament in 1983 after a career in the Royal Marines and Foreign Office. His military training had made him a professional warrior who knew how to set objectives and set out to achieve them, who would organise early summonses to discuss the latest crises, who knew how to rally and inspire his demoralised troops and command their loyalty.

  • 27  Major, J., 1999, p. 237.
  • 28  Campbell, M., op.cit.,  p. 137-138.,

18Paddy Ashdown quickly gained recognition on the national scene. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the issue of Hong Kong played in his favour. A Mandarin-speaker well-versed in Chinese matters, he spoke for the right of admission into the UK for British passport holders after the Tienanmin Square episode. His cause was difficult and not particularly popular, but his attachment to a clearly liberal principle, his courage, and his knowledge of the subject commanded respect.  In 1991, his military experience stood him in good stead during the Gulf War and helped him win further recognition. He supported the conservative government and offered John Major positive suggestions in private27. Later yet, the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1996 provided him with another opportunity to gain credibility and appear as an expert on international affairs28. His repeated visits there gave him an extraordinary knowledge of the region and its problems, and he reached the conclusion that a stronger UN and NATO policy was needed. He also championed the rights of Bosnian Muslims and modestly contributed to the ending of the war. In other words, Paddy Ashdown whose standing had paradoxically been enhanced by the disclosure, in 1992, of an earlier affair with his secretary, managed to make a real impact on the national scene, proving his competence, which then would rub off on his party.

  • 29  Walter, D., op.cit., p. 172.

19This charismatic leader also enjoyed considerable status with his party. As a moderniser and reorganiser, he had made it clear in his leadership campaign that he would lead the party from the front. He was courageous in defending liberal causes and, as a grassroots politician, he was energetic in campaigning with activists around the country. For instance, he made numerous visits to Newbury to help David Rendel win in Tory territory. When he met opposition within his party, he tried to persuade his opponents by spending the amounts of credit he had carefully built up before29. That was particularly true when deals were made with New Labour. Interested in the detail of policy, Paddy Ashdown personally chaired the Federal Policy Committee, the engine room of policy development, and he was keen on new solutions.

20Indeed, the Liberal Democrats, whose mission statement30 was to defend the values of liberty, equality and community, to support both individual and social justice31 and to encourage the enterprise culture instead of the old-style liberal managed economy of incomes policies and government control, managed to strike in new directions, to offer distinctive policies and implement innovative electoral campaigns. When he delivered his first conference speech, Paddy Ashdown defined the party’s policy priorities: fair voting, Scottish and Welsh parliaments, industrial democracy, freedom of information, high-quality education, proper housing, and an effective health service.  In 1990, he repeated the party commitment to investment in education, protection of the environment with the pollution added tax (PAT), Europe, and constitutional reforms, including proportional representation. These priorities were again reiterated in 1991 at the March Notthingham Conference in‘Shaping Tomorrow, Starting Today: Liberal Democrat Priorities for the Year 2000’, a document prepared by Lord Holme32. It insisted on electoral reform, a flourishing enterprise economy, anti-monopoly measures, road pricing as part of an environmental programme, and Europe. So, when the general election was called, the party was prepared and praised by the Guardian as ‘a proper party’ which had produced ‘a proper manifesto’33. Indeed, in ‘Changing Britain for Good’34, the party had pledged to reform the voting system, to give home rule to Scotland, and above all to raise basic rate income tax by one penny to finance education.  This particular item dominated media treatment of the party during the campaign and had the advantage of giving it a distinctive policy of honesty in taxation; with such a measure, the party looked less dangerous than the Labour Party. The campaign run by Des Wilson acquired the status of a professional one and the Liberal Democrats were now seen as possessing a structure of serious decision-making35. In fact, the party had started to carve out a new profile and identity for itself.

  • 36  The Liberal Democrats, Facing up to the Future, 1993, 31 p.

21The 1993 party conference continued to develop distinctive policies to be found in a new document entitled ‘Facing up to the Future’36. It proposed the adoption of proportional representation for all elections, and a move away from taxing income towards taxing pollution. The conference also approved fixed-termed parliaments, the abolition of the royal prerogative, and recommended a timetable for the single European currency and an independent European central bank. After the death of John Smith in 1994 and his replacement at the head of the Labour Party by Tony Blair, the Liberal Democrats once again found themselves facing the same task: separating their party from the two main parties and more particularly putting forward a different identity from the new Blairite Labour Party. In 1995, Paddy Ashdown launched a new policy statement entitled ‘The Liberal Democrat Guarantee’, which focused on education (nurseries for all under fives and educational improvement), constitutional reform and environmentally-friendly policy. At the party conference in Glasgow, he committed the party to bold plans on tax with a 50 per cent tax on those earning £100,000 per annum, new curbs on private motoring, public control of the railways, and a radical programme for constitutional reform including wider use of advisory referenda, a second elected chamber, and more openness in the way decisions were taken in Europe.

22With New Labour gaining increased support, the Liberal Democrats entered the 1997 campaign with a manifesto entitled ‘Make a Difference’. Indeed, as the two parties’ policies were quite close with New Labour embracing constitutional reform, it was all the more important for the Liberal Democrats to put forward a distinctive message. As in 1992, the centrepiece of their programme was education and other proposals included a £565 million to cut hospital waiting lists, an extra 3,000 police, and environmental priorities; but constitutional reform took a back seat. The result was that

  • 37  The Guardian, 3 May 1997.

The Liberal Democrat campaign won widespread popular respect and recognition both for its leader and for the arguments it advanced. Paddy Ashdown emerged […] as the only one prepared to talk about specific policies and commitments, with a coherent and cohesive party behind him37.

  • 38  Ten were elected in Scotland, and one  in Wales.

23The outcome of the election was a triumph with 46 victories38: the Liberal Democrats had not elected so many MPs since 1929. The party could boast a real breakthrough which was only over-shadowed by the New Labour overall majority.

24The party had managed to redefine a profile and identity for itself and to elaborate policies that made it both credible and different.  In strict terms, the Liberal Democrats had come back to the fore and constituted a third party that could not be ignored. Nevertheless, for them to become a potential party of government in an adversarial system where the two main parties woo them when in need and try to squeeze them the rest of time is almost attempting the impossible. In such a situation, what strategies did the Liberal Democrats adopt?  How did they avoid threats and take up challenges? What type of relationships did they establish with their rivals?

The Art of Adaptation

  • 39  The vision of an organisation is its desired future state.
  • 40  Chris Rennard
  • 41  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p.1

25 The global objective and vision39 of the Liberal Democrat Party were to increase their influence and share of power on the British political scene. Paddy Ashdown himself acknowledged that what drove him through his leadership was getting the party into power.  Indeed the Liberal Democrats were determined to show that a third party in a two-party system was not necessarily a repository for protest votes or community politics.  At the local level, the party had a tradition of community politics which it had inherited from the Liberals; but by 1992, the fortunes of the party in Parliament had barely advanced as the conversion of local government majorities into parliamentary majorities remained an extremely difficult task. And so, if globally the advances made by the party were largely due to community politics, an efficient electoral machine, and a competent Director of Campaigns and Elections40, relying on this strategy was not enough. Indeed, it seemed to be difficult for the Liberal Democrats to gain a parliamentary majority of their own, even if in November 1990 when John Major succeeded Margaret Thatcher and Neil Kinnock’s party was declining, Paddy Ashdown thought that the Liberal Democrats had a real opportunity to replace Labour as a responsible opposition41. In the same year Paddy Ashdown recognized in his diary that

  • 42  Ibid., p. 567.

The bunker mentality we have had for the past two years has been natural and right for a party trying to find the space and freedom to rebuild itself. But this is a luxury we may not be able to afford for much longer. […] Our game partner must be Labour42.

  • 43  Walter, D., op.cit., p. 161.

26However in the run-up to the 1992 elections, when the prospect of a hung Parliament seemed an increasing possibility, he refused to express a preference between supporting a labour or a conservative government to maximise his party’s appeal. Although John Major had firmly ruled out proportional representation which was the liberal democrat deal in any coalition, the liberal democrat leader was wary about making any statement which might alienate potential supporters and instead used the concept of ‘equidistance’ between the main parties as a way of putting pressure on the Labour Party.  Towards the end of the campaign, when Neil Kinnock offered the Liberal Democrats a seat at the negotiating table, the Conservatives were quick to seize the opportunity ‘to line up their two targets and shoot them with one bullet’43 and soon John Major accused Paddy Ashdown of being the doorkeeper to a Labour Britain. This episode clearly shows how adaptable and careful the Liberal Democrats had to be in positioning themselves and in relating to the other parties. In this particular case, Paddy Ashdown tried to respond to the attack by quickly returning to his party’s positive messages and policy proposals.

27The outcome of the 1992 general election allowed the liberal democrat leader to rejoice as it gave the Labour Party a fourth consecutive defeat and a sense of failure and as it provided him with an opportunity to promote the ‘realignment of the left’44, which according to him was the continuation of the his predecessors’ work (Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, and David Steel). One month after the election, he announced in a speech he delivered in Chard that his party’s purpose was now to ‘create the force powerful enough to remove the Tories […] and to draw together the forces in Britain that will bring change and reform’45. The Liberal Democrats had to reach beyond the limits of their own party and to be the catalyst for a broader movement that would get rid of the Conservatives.  The concept of ‘equidistance’ was not mentioned but it was clear that the future lay with a partnership with the non-socialist wing of the Labour Party. At the time, Ken Livingstone, Margaret Beckett and John Prescott opposed the move but Robin Cook welcomed the initiative and Tony Blair was not against a dialogue of ideas. As for John Smith, he was opposed to formal cooperation with the Liberal Democrats at Westminster, but he had become interested in constitutional reforms and the two parties were working well on the Scottish Constitutional Convention.

28However, the Liberal Democrats were not in Labour’s pocket. First, their covert aim was to promote debate within John Smith’s party in order to fragment it between the modernisers and the traditionalists. Secondly, they voted with the government on the Maastricht bill. For Paddy Ashdown, whom John Major consulted with several times, the Liberal Democrat Party had to stick by their consistent tradition of support for Europe as the issue at stake was Britain’s future and not merely the survival of the government. The conservative government only won because of liberal democrat support. As a result, the Labour Party was bitterly angered and Paddy Ashdown was in turn disappointed by what he called Labour’s opportunistic opposition to the Treaty.

  • 46  Ashdown, P., op.cit, p. 273.
  • 47  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p. 244.
  • 48  Scottish Parliament, proportional representation for European elections, commission on voting refo (...)

29Soon however the Liberal Democrats had to contend with Blairism. Indeed, things considerably changed with the sudden death of John Smith and the arrival of a new labour leader, Tony Blair. When the latter made it clear that he intended to take his party to the centre ground of British politics, he received warm words from Shirley Williams and Bill Rogders, and welcomed a few liberal democrat defections. Now, it was no longer possible for the Liberal Democrats to overtake the Labour Party and to become the main party of opposition. However, New Labour was both an opportunity and a threat for Paddy Ashdown who was then forced to adapt to the new situation as ‘Blair with all the power of Labour behind him, […] fills exactly the space I have been aiming at for the last seven years!’46. Things were all the more difficult for the liberal democrat leader as he remarked that ‘there is very little difference between his thinking and mine. We have come to the same analysis from different directions’47. In this new context, Paddy Ashdown chose to ride this tidal wave rather than be swamped by it. Even if this was a high-risk strategy, it opened the possibility for the Liberal Democrats to form a coalition with Labour and achieve proportional representation. In other words, the idea was to forge a strong relationship on a progressive agenda in order to have a chance to become a party of government. On this basis, a series of clandestine meetings and negotiations between the two leaders and their closest allies took place. In May 1995, Paddy Ashdown officially renounced the policy of ‘equidistance’ and soon after the ground was laid for a stable relationship between the two parties thanks to the creation of a Joint Consultative Committee on Constitutional Reform (October 1996) and to the work of Robin Cook and Robert Maclennan on issues of mutual constitutional interest48. The outcome was the Cook-Maclennan agreement of March 1997 which defined the areas in which the two parties could work together in the next Parliament. The agreement was a real breakthrough as it made the Liberal Democrats relevant to the governance of Britain even if proportional representation remained a stumbling block.

30Strictly speaking the results of the 1997 general election were a triumph for the Liberal Democrats: their popularity greatly increased during the campaign with a rise from 11 per cent to 17 per cent in the polls in April; the size of their new parliamentary group greatly exceeded Holme’s expectations with a total number of 46 MPs. This victory was overshadowed by New Labour’s landslide and talks about coalition cooled down. After all the effort the Liberal Democrats had put in the ‘Project’, the disappointing result perfectly illustrated how much the fortunes of the party depended on those of Labour and the Conservatives.


31The breakthrough that the Liberal Democrats achieved in 1997 was confirmed in the general elections of 2001 and 2005 under the leadership of Charles Kennedy with 52 and 62 seats in the House of Commons. A party that was on the brink of oblivion almost ten years earlier had managed to prosper.  The Liberal Democrats survived under John Major’s premiership for several reasons: first, they kept a presence in Parliament and consequently a national platform thanks to carefully planned strategies; secondly, they had a solid grassroots organisation; thirdly, they avoided being squeezed between the two main parties by keeping a distinctive policy agenda; they chose a strong and popular leader who knew how to lead his troops; finally, they manoeuvred tactically when faced with threats and opportunities. They would, of course, have enjoyed a much better position if a hung parliament had happened and if a more proportional electoral system had replaced the First Past the Post system. These remarks are still valid today and the next general election may be the one that will unlock the British political system.

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Ashdown, P., The Ashdown Diaries, Volume One 1988-1997, London: Penguin, 2000.

Bennie, L.G., Curtice, J., Rüdig, W., ‘Liberal, Social Democrat or Liberal Democrat? Political Identity and British Centre Party Politics’, in Broughton, D., Farrell, D.M., Denver, D., Rallings, C., British Elections and Parties Yearbook, 1994, London: Frank Cass, 1995.

Butler, D., Butler, G., British Political Facts since 1979, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

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Campbell, M., My Autobiography, London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008.

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Seyd,P., Whiteley, P., Towards a More Responsible Two Party System, The British Party System Reconsidered, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Association, Washington DC, August 31 to September 3, 2000.

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Whiteley, P., Seyd, P., Billinghurst, A., Third Party Politics, oxford: OUP, 2006.

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1  The Liberal Party and the Social Democratic Party.

2  Ashdown, P., 2000, p. 50.

3  This popular sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, one of the most famous in the history of British television comedy, was performed in 1969. An irate customer played by John Cleese returns to a pet shop to complain about a ‘deceased’ parrot he bought from the owner, Michael Palin. This allusion is all the more interesting as during the 1987 UK general election John Cleese recorded a nine minute party political broadcast for the SDP-Liberal Alliance, which talked about the similarities and failures of the other two parties in a more humorous tone than the standard political broadcast. He also narrated a radio election broadcast for the party during the 2001 UK general election.

4  This was mainly due to a drop in membership, particularly amongst former SDP members. Walter, D., 2003, p. 153.

5  Campbell, M., 2008, p. 114.

6  Head-quarters of the Liberal Democrat Party.

7  Seyd,P., Whiteley, P., Towards a More Responsible Two Party System, The British Party System Reconsidered, paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Association, Washington DC, August 31 to September 3, 2000.

8  Butler, D., Butler, G., 2006, p 127-128.

9  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p. 11.

10  The party was successively called the Social and Liberal Democrats, Democrats, and finally Liberal Democrats.

11  D. Walter, D., op.cit., p.155.

12  An English musician and aspirant politician (1940-1999) who founded the Official Monster Raving Loony Party. The party’s manifestos were deliberately bizarre and contained proposals that seemed impossible or absurd to do.

13  Labour MP Terry Fields was jailed 60 days for refusing to pay the poll tax.

14  Nigel Lawson resigned on 26 October 1989. He opposed the poll tax. His disagreement with Alan Walters, Margaret Thatcher’s personal adviser, over the exchange rate made his job impossible.

15  Geoffrey Howe resigned on 1 November 1990. He criticized Margaret Thatcher for undermining the policies on EMU proposed by her own Chancellor.

16  A number of ministers among whom Tim Yeo had committed sexual indiscretions while John Major was conducting his “Back to Basics” campaign. Other politicians involved in scandals were Graham Riddick, David Tredinnik, and  Jeffrey Archer.

17  MacIver, D., 1996, p. 35.

18  Kavanagh, D., 1997, p. 68.

19  Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh, and  Littleborough and Saddleworth.

20  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p. 572.

21  Walter, D., op.cit., p. 163.

22  Somerset and Devon North and Cornwall and Plymouth West.

23  Cook, R., 2004, p.223.

24  Emma Nicholson defected to the Liberal Democrats on 29 December 1995 after long secret negotiations; her carefully prepared defection was in the headlines for several days. Peter Thurnham defected in February 1996

25  Seyd, P., Whiteley, P., op.cit., 2000.

26  Whiteley, P., Seyd, P., Billinghurst, A., 2006, p. 8.

27  Major, J., 1999, p. 237.

28  Campbell, M., op.cit.,  p. 137-138.,

29  Walter, D., op.cit., p. 172.

30  A mission statement states the overriding purpose of an organisation in line with the values it promotes and defends.


32  Cook, R., op.cit., p. 208.

33  The Guardian, 6 April 1992.


35  The Guardian, 6 April 1992.

36  The Liberal Democrats, Facing up to the Future, 1993, 31 p.

37  The Guardian, 3 May 1997.

38  Ten were elected in Scotland, and one  in Wales.

39  The vision of an organisation is its desired future state.

40  Chris Rennard

41  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p.1

42  Ibid., p. 567.

43  Walter, D., op.cit., p. 161.

44  Ashdown, op.cit., p. 574.


46  Ashdown, P., op.cit, p. 273.

47  Ashdown, P., op.cit., p. 244.

48  Scottish Parliament, proportional representation for European elections, commission on voting reform for Westminster, reform of the House of Lords

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Muriel Cassel-Piccot, « Rebuilding a Liberal Britain under John Major’s Premiership, the Liberal Democrat Party from 1990 to 1997 »Observatoire de la société britannique, 7 | 2009, 335-350.

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Muriel Cassel-Piccot, « Rebuilding a Liberal Britain under John Major’s Premiership, the Liberal Democrat Party from 1990 to 1997 »Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 7 | 2009, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 28 mars 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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Muriel Cassel-Piccot

Maître de Conférences à l’Université de Lyon III

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