Alfred Deakin: What is Liberalism?

Lecture - 18 March 1895 

A public meeting was held yesterday evening at St. Colomb's Church schoolroom, Hawthorn, under the presidency of mayor, Cr. Barker, to hear an address from Mr. Deakin M.L.A on What is Liberalism? The gathering was under the auspices of the Hawthorn Liberal Association.

Mr. Deakin, who was received with applause, said the first and most obvious relation of Liberalism as a word was liberty.

In the beginning, authority was necessarily supreme and arbitrary. Liberalism originated when opposition to authority first manifested itself. In ancient Greece the early differences which developed into party feeling between the aristocracy and democracy created political bodies synonymous with the Conservatives and Liberals of our own day, and the patricians and plebeians of the Roman Empire were also analogous to those great factions.

What Kingsley called "divine discontent" with every ill which could be remedied animated the true Liberal. The granting of Magna Charta in King Johis time and the convention of the first Parliament by Simon de Montfort were the results of Liberalism. It was the ever glorious and to be remembered Long Parliament which first taught an English king who had departed from the wise moderation of his predecessors in government that there existed an authority in the affairs of the nation greater than his own. The really first great Liberals belonged to this Parliament, Pym, Hampden and Penn. The Whig and Tory parties, so called, did not, however, come into existence until the end of the seventeenth century, about 1680, when Charles II bartered not merely his own honour, but the soil and honour of his country, for the French Kings gold. In those days the Whig combination, which was the Liberal party was formed under Russell and Sydney on the principle of upholding Parliamentary sovereignty and control. In 1832 the Whigs compelled the reluctant House of Peers which was always against the enlargement of popular liberty, almost at the sword's point, to pass the Reform Bilt extending the franchise liberally to the great towns and wiping out the rotten boroughs. That victory laid the foundation of the Liberal party of the present day. The old titles of Whig and Tory were thereafter laid aside. The Tories, feeling their name was branded with shame through the resistance offered by their Party to Catholic emancipation and the Reform Bill, decided in 1834 to call themselves Conservatives. About 1836 the Whigs then adopted the name of Liberals.

In England now, as Mr. Gilbert amusingly put it

Ev'ry boy and ev'ry girl
Who's born into this world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative

The characteristic of the Liberal party through the century has been resistance to and destruction of class privileges. It has not yet been successful in sweeping these all away, but has limited them more narrowly where it has not removed them, and the present spirit of the party was to destroy that last stronghold of class privilege in the home country, the House of Lords. Other great works of Liberalism has been the removal of the religious disabilities of nonconformists and Roman Catholics and the abolition of the laws against trades unionism.

Equality of political rights without reference to creed, and equality of legal rights without consideration of wealth or quality, were insisted upon. In this country, Liberalism has been identified with every broad movement based on similar principles. The question was whether it would stop short of female suffrage. Not only did it seem that the female suffrage was a necessary corollary of Liberalism, but also of one man one vote. (Hear, hear).

. . . The reconstructive element in Liberalism must in future come to the front. In political economy, having induced politicians to discard the old programme, "the devil take the hindmost" Liberalism would now inculcate a new teaching with regard to the poorest in the community, that all should have what was their due. By fixing a minimum rate of wages and wise factory legislation wealth would be prevented from taking unfair advantage of the needy, and the latter would be saved from leading wretched and imperfect lives. One of the many incalculable benefits to be obtained from Federation would be the power to deal with the currency question in a way which would lead to the adjustment of prices favourable to the prosperous pursuit of industry. It was the duty of Liberals to study such questions and to tread as ever, the paths of progress. In doing so, they would make mistakes but they would leave the world on the whole a better place than they found it.

A very hearty vote of thanks was accorded Mr Deakin which was carried by acclamation.

Printed in "The Age" Melbourne: 19 March 1895

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