Records of South Ayrshire Liberal Party (1870s)

Scope and Content

The material consists of letters and draft minutes mainly written by E. Cathcart of Auchendrane, and dealing with Liberal affairs of the county. It includes extract from minutes of sub-committee of the Liberal Party in South Ayrshire, 2 March 1875, a list of members of the General Committee, letter to Lord Stair, notes of electoral figures or calculations, and accounts.

Administrative / Biographical History

The Liberal Party in Britain was formed on 6 June 1859 from a gradual amalgamation of Whigs, Radicals and Peelites, and for much of the following thirty years the Liberals governed the country. William Gladstone (1809-1898), Liberal leader and four times Prime Minister, dominated British politics during that period. The question of Home Rule for Ireland weakened the Liberal Party however and from 1886 it stayed out of power for the next twenty years. The weak leadership of Lord Rosebery (1847-1929), Gladstone's successor, and the continuing squabbles in the party over Ireland kept it in the doldrums into the opening years of the twentieth century.

A landslide victory in 1906 brought the Liberals back to power, partly as a result of an electoral pact with the new-born Labour Party which helped the latter to take a number of Conservative seats in north-west England. Under the Prime Ministers Henry Campbell-Bannerman (1836-1908) and Herbert Asquith (1852-1928), the Liberal governments from 1906 to 1915 broke the power of the House of Lords and laid the foundations of the modern welfare state, introducing old age pensions and the national insurance system. However, industrial unrest, the issue of votes for women, Ireland, factionalism within the party, and the demands of the First World War demoralised the Liberals between 1910 and 1915, and Asquith acceded to a coalition government led by the Conservatives.

In 1918, David Lloyd George (1863-1945) emerged as the leader of the Liberals in the coalition, but when the Conservatives brought the coalition to an end in 1922 the Liberal Party began to find itself in the wilderness during a period of electoral instability. Indeed, in 1922 it was the Labour Party that emerged as the second largest party in the House of Commons and this was confirmed again in elections in 1923. From now on British politics would become polarised into the 'left' and the 'right' with support for the Conservatives and Labour centred on heartland areas, and the Liberal Party began to find itself on the fringes of politics. In 1924 the Liberals lost 75 per cent of its parliamentary representation and by 1935 it had only 21 MPs. In 1945 this was reduced to only 12, all in rural seats, half of which were in Wales. In 1957, the Liberals had only 5 MPs and were close to extinction. At this low point, Megan Lloyd George (1902-1966), daughter of David Lloyd George, won the Carmarthen seat for the Labour Party.

A new dawn was to come however. In 1956, Liberal leader Clement Davies (1884-1962) retired and he was replaced by Jo Grimond (1913-1993), MP for Orkney and Shetland. Grimond was younger, an excellent communicator, and provided a sharper edge to party policy, and the Liberals as a party seemed suddenly in tune, young and fresh. They supported British membership of the Common Market (later the EEC, the EC, then EU) and they opposed the nuclear deterrent. Most importantly they recognised the importance of by-elections, but in spite of one or two spectacular by-election wins - one of which was Orpington in 1962 - little progress was made in general elections. Grimond retired in 1967 to be replaced by Jeremy Thorpe (b. 1929).

The 1970 election again saw the party reduced to only 6 seats, but in 1974 this increased to 14 . Then, in 1976, Thorpe resigned over allegations about his private life and he was replaced by David Steel (b. 1938). He immediately led the Liberals into a pact with the Labour Party which had lost its Commons majority. The Lib-Lab Pact was ended in 1978, and in the 1979 election the Conservatives and Margaret Thatcher were swept into power. While the Labour Party was wracked in a struggle with the 'left', many of its moderates jumped from the party along with Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Shirley Williams and Bill Rodgers - the Gang of Four - and they formed the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981. Later that year, the Liberals formed an alliance with the SDP. In 1982, Roy Jenkins (1920-2003) was elected SDP leader. The new party and the Liberals won a string of by-elections and in the 1983 election the Alliance parties won 25.4 per cent of the vote. This however brought only 23 seats. Jenkins resigned as leader and was replaced by David Owen (b. 1938). Throughout the mid-1980s the Alliance gained further by-election wins but tensions between the two parties began to emerge, so when the Alliance share of the 1987 election vote fell 22.6 per cent, Steel proposed a merger of the two parties. Owen was opposed to this.

Merger of the SDP and the Liberals was approved by a majority of both parties nevertheless and the new party came into being on 3 March 1988 and Paddy Ashdown was elected its leader in July 1988. Initially there was confusion as to the name of the new party - known in the beginning as the Social and Liberal Democrats - but the name Liberal Democrats gradually took hold. A low point for the new party as it tried to establish its place in British politics was the 1989 European Parliament elections when it was beaten to fourth place by the Greens. By 1990 however, the Liberal Democrats were winning by-elections and in 1992 they had secured themselves as the third force in British politics, and in the 1997 general election they won 16.8 per cent of the vote and 46 seats in the Commons. The 2001 election brought them 52 seats.

In Scotland where the Liberal Democrats compete with the Labour Party, the SNP and the Conservatives, the party managed to win 10 seats in 2001. One of the Labour Party wins in Scotland was the constituency of Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley formerly known as South Ayrshire. Within this constituency there is a small Conservative vote centred on the coast, in the smaller towns such as Girvan, and in the farmland inland, but the seat is dominated by the former mining communities of New Cumnock and Dalmellington, once the heart of the South Ayrshire coalfield. In the 2001 election, the Liberal Democrats took a share of only 7.3 per cent of the vote in Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley. Thirty years earlier in 1970 there had been no room for the Liberals at all in South Ayrshire. With a share of 61 per cent, Jim Sillars (Labour Party, then later of the Scottish Labour Party, then the SNP) saw off the Conservatives with a 31 per cent majority. The SNP won just over 8 per cent. In the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, the southern part of Ayrshire would have been fertile ground for the old Liberal Party.

Access Information

Generally open for consultation to bona fide researchers, but please contact repository for details in advance.

Acquisition Information

Material purchased from Mayfly Ephemera, London, October 1993, Accession no. E93.85


The biographical/administrative history was compiled using the following material: (1) Liberal Democrat History Group. Full-text [online].  Liberal Democrat History Group [Accessed 3 September 2003].

Compiled by Graeme D Eddie, Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections Division.

Other Finding Aids

Important finding aids generally are: the alphabetical Index to Manuscripts held at Edinburgh University Library, Special Collections and Archives, consisting of typed slips in sheaf binders and to which additions were made until 1987; and the Index to Accessions Since 1987.


Check the local Indexes for details of any additions.