Lloyd George and the Conservative leader Andrew Bonar Law decided to continue the coalition after the end of the First World War. The two leaders agreed to issue a letter to a single government supporter in most constituencies for the 1918 general election, which thus became known as the 'coupon election'. Not all loyal MPs got the coupon and some who were offered it rejected the support, but this marked a formal division between Coalition Liberal supporters of Lloyd George and those Liberals loyal to Asquith and the official party.
After the coalition won the general election and the non coalition wing of the party had suffered catastrophic defeat, the split in the Liberal Party became more organised. Of the 36 Liberal MPs elected without the coupon, nine supported the coalition. The others held a meeting and declared themselves to be the Liberal Parliamentary Party. During the course of the Parliament, the split spread through the party organisation. At a meeting of the National Liberal Federation in May 1920 coalition ministers were shouted down and the division became even more obvious.
Eventually, despairing of capturing the official party organisation, the Prime Minister decided that he needed to set up his own party. A meeting was held in London on 18-19 January 1922. A National Liberal Council was formed. For all practical purposes the division was complete.
After the Conservative Party withdrew from the Coalition, Lloyd George resigned as Prime Minister on 19 October 1922. The 1922 general election that followed was disastrous for both Liberal parties. Only 62 Liberal and 53 National Liberal MPs were elected.
With the end of the coalition the National Liberals had lost their reason for existing as a separate party. However, the bitterness caused by years of internal struggles made immediate Liberal reunion impossible and two parties retained their separate party organisations .
However the political landscape was changed once more when the new Prime Minister and Conservative leader Stanley Baldwin decided to call a general election to seek a mandate to abandon free trade and introduce tariffs. Despite the deep hostility of between the leaders of the Liberal and National Liberal parties, the call for a defence of Free Trade once more enabled all of them to unite around their most distinctive policy.
On 13 November 1923, the leaders of the two Liberal parties declared that "all candidates will be adopted and described as Liberals, and will be supported by the whole strength of the Party without regard to any past differences". This declaration marked the end of the National Liberal party - along with the stopping of its journal, the Lloyd George Liberal Magazine, in the same month. However the monies that the Coalition Liberal/National Liberals had accumulated from the sale of honours and other donations to finance the party were retained by Lloyd George as a separate political fund. This would remain a source of constant friction in the reunited Liberal party and would later lead to further divisions in the 1930s.
In the 1923 election about half the former National Liberals lost their seats or failed to get re-elected including Winston Churchill. Others like former cabinet minister Christopher Addison had already joined the Labour Party whilst many former leading members of the National Liberals including Frederick Edward Guest and Alfred Mond had joined Churchill and moved over to the Conservative Party by the end of the 1920s.
The Liberal Nationals evolved as a distinctive group within the Liberal Party 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 lead by Sir John Simon 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. By June 1931, three Liberal MPs including Simon, Ernest Brown and Robert Hutchison resigned their party's whip and sat as independents.
When the Labour Government was replaced by a National Government in August 1931, dissident 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 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 Conference 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 Liberal M.Ps like Robert Bernays remained on the Government benches before eventually joining the Liberal Nationals and other MPs maintained links across the floor.
Within the wider party the split was not so clear. Liberal Associations who supported Liberal National candidates remained affiliated to the National Liberal Federation, the mainstream body for the official party, 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. The Liberal National Council, the main national organ for the extra parliamentary party, was not founded until 1936. However there were increasing divisions when some Liberal associations endorsed other National candidates 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 foundered 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 marginalised, with Simon "kicked upstairs" to become Lord Chancellor. The party's new leader, Ernest Brown, was only occasionally 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. Only in London (where neither Liberal party had any MPs) were the two reunited at regional organisational level, although in some individual boroughs and constituencies such as Huddersfield rival Liberal associations began co-operating and eventually merging as avowed Liberal associations. 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.
In May 1947 the 'Woolton-Teviot' agreement between Lord Woolton (for the Conservatives) and Lord Teviot (for the Liberal Nationals) resulted in the two parties merging at the constituency level. The Liberal Nationals also changed their name to National Liberals at this stage. (Their reluctance to take this label originally is said to be a reaction to Lloyd George's use of the name for the earlier National Liberal Party in the 1920s.)
The National Liberals therefore fought the next five British General Elections as allies of the Conservative Party. To confuse matters, their candidates stood for election with a variety of names including 'National Liberal', 'National Liberal and Conservative', 'Liberal and Conservative' and so on. In addition a number of Conservatives with little or no former connection to the original party (including Randolph Churchill) added the National Liberal name when going forward as candidates.
The appearance of the Liquorice Allsorts National Liberal candidates did not go down too well with an aggrieved Liberal Party. They saw this as a blatant attempt by the Conservative Party to appropriate their historic party name but the Liberals themselves were in a parlous political position. In 1951 thanks to local electoral pacts - no fewer than five of the six remaming Liberal MPs were elected in the absence of a Conservative candidate and in two cases, by the operation of formal local electoral pacts in (Bolton and Huddersfield). The Liberals were not able to field many candidates for election either, especially in 1951 and 1955 when the party had barely mustered over 100 to stand for Parliament.
Whilst the Liberal Party struggled to survive, the National Liberals managed to win 17 seats in the 1950 General Elections. In subsequent elections their numbers increased to 19 (1951), 21 (1955) and 19 (1959) making them the larger of the two Liberal groupings in Parliament .
During this period two National Liberals held cabinet rank:
However by the early 1960s it was obvious there was very little point to the continued separate political existence of the National Liberals. Some of the party's former candidates including a future Deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine had gone on to stand as Conservatives in the 1960s.
After 1962 the party lacked a senior government presence and with the retirement or death of former leaders, only six with the National Liberal label were elected in the General Election of 1964. A further four who had sat with this label preferred to be elected under a 'straight' Conservative label. The post of chairman of the parliamentary party was filled by the former junior minister David Renton, the MP for Huntingdon since 1945 with veteran National Liberal Herbert Butcher (who sat for the seat of Holland with Boston) remaining their chief whip. Butcher retired before the 1966 General Election in which the National Liberals were reduced to just three MPs (including the future Conservative Party cabinet minister John Nott. Two others (Joan Vickers and John Osborn) were elected as Conservatives. With so few MPs, they agreed to give up a room at the Westminster Parliament that they had used for their meetings to the Liberal party.
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 still lead by David Renton assimilated completely into the Conservative Party.
This party has been formed by former members of the National Front and is led by Patrick Harrington. According to its website, "National Liberals believe that the personal liberty of a nation's citizens is vitally important and that this freedom is best preserved within the framework of a democratic nation state. A National Liberal will therefore support measures protecting and promoting personal liberty, greater democracy and national independence." Whilst it shares the previous National Liberal belief in coalition politics, it promotes the philosophy of "National Liberalism" as an alternative (a third way) to Conservative and Labour politics.
On their website, the National Liberal Party has photos of the former MP and cabinet minister Sir John Simon and the 19th century Italian nationalist/republican writer and politician Giuseppe Mazzini as a claim to political legitimacy. However the website's links suggests that this new National Liberal Party has connections to various ultra-right wing nationalist groups.
The "National Liberal Party" should not be confused with either of the 19th century creations: the "National Liberal Federation" (1877-1936) 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.