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National Liberal Party (UK)
The National Liberals evolved as a distinctive group within the Liberal Party in 1931 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 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. When the Labour Government was replaced by a National Government in August 1931, these 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 manifestos, but the Liberal Nationals were prepared to repudiate free trade and in doing 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 Convention 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 individual MPs maintained links across the floor.
Within the wider party the split was not so clear. Liberal Associations who supported National Liberal candidates remained affiliated to the National Liberal Federation until that body was dissolved in 1936, whilst 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. However there were increasing divisions when some Liberal associations endorsed other National 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.
Throughout the 1930s and 1940s there were a number of proposals to reunite the two Liberal parties, but these routinely founded 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 marginalsied, with Simon "kicked upstairs " to become Lord Chancellor. The party's new leader, Ernest Brown, was only occassionally 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 founded 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 but only in London were the two parties reunited at the organisational level. 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. At the same time there were calls for the Liberal Nationals to fully unify with the Conservatives, with whom they had operated closely with for many years to the point that few political commentators could tell the difference, and in 1947 the two parties formally merged. Some MPs and candidates continued to use the National Liberal party name for elections until the 1960s. Until 1966 they continued to claim a room at the Westminster Parliament for their own use.
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 assimilated completely into the Conservative Party.
The National Liberal Party should not be confused with either of the 19th century creations: the National Liberal Federation (1877) designed to make the Liberal Party a nationwide membership organisation, or the National Liberal Club (1882) designed to provide a London club for some supporters of the Federation and still operating as a club.
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