The development of Liberalism (also known as Classical Liberalism) as a political programme goes back to the period between the Glorious Revolution (1683) and the Reform Act of 1867. Before tracing its origin, it shall be desirable to have an idea about the factors which helped the growth of Liberalism in England in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries.

At the outset it may be noted that no single factor contributed to the growth of Liberalism in England and Europe, it was the outcome of the combination of a number of social and political tendencies prevailing in the eighteenth and the nineteenth centuries. The most significant role in this regard was played by the Renaissance and Reformation move­ments.

Both these movements attached great importance to the individual. The emergence of the Protestant doctrine which held that each believer could communicate directly with God, without dependence on priests etc. not only undermined the importance of institution of church but also strengthened the spirit of individualism. The Reformation by stressing internal energy, individual responsibility and the need for reconstructing the worldly order also provided stimulus to individualism.

The political changes which followed the Reformation played no less significant role in the growth of Liberalism. They brought about a change in the settled pattern of relations between the Lords and the Commons.


Prominent positions were assigned by the monarchs to the bureaucrats of commons, lawyers, merchants, military adventurers and scientists. Simul­taneously the emergence of nation-state also brought about changes in law, in the economy and personal relations.

But probably the most important change brought about by these politi­cal changes was the emergence of a small self-conscious middle class which became an important vehicle of the Liberal doctrine. The scientific discoveries and technological innovations between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries resulted in the emergence of a small commercial and industrial middle class, who were in favour of individual enterprise and believed in the creed of individual responsibility.

Thus we can say with David G. Smith that Liberalism viewed in histori­cal perspective was the culmination of several broad social and political trends. It involved a change in the scope of individual aspirations and perhaps more important, in the people who had them.

Prior to the nine­teenth century these aspirations were restricted to an elite of birth and wealth, environment, individual aspiration and consciousness of capacity .combined to produce, in the nineteenth century, a widely shared and , politically potent liberal faith.” [2]


As regards the development and emergence of liberalism in England, it started in the nature of appeal for religious freedom, constitutional guarantees and individual rights. These demands were given a definite constitutional form by the settlement of 1689 which followed the Glorious Revolution of 1688. However at this stage the Liberalism was essentially of a negative character.

It merely aimed at protecting the individual and other groups from the government. Further, at this stage Liberalism was essentially a political doctrine which stood for principles like rule of law, right of opposition, separation of powers etc.

The best exposition of the Liberalism of this stage is found in Locke’s Second Treatise of Govern­ment. Locke was a strong supporter of constitutional government and made a plea for limiting the powers of the state through grant of rights to the individual. He asserted that the authority of the government rests on the consent of the people. He considered that the individual was prior to the state.

He, therefore, observed, “The great and chief end. .of men’s uniting into Commonwealths and putting themselves under the govern­ments, is the preservation of their property.” He asserted the state exists merely to protect and preserve the individual’s natural rights. The other principles on which Lock.?, laid emphasis were the theory of consent, sepa­ration of powers, the theory of revolt and above all the theory of natural rights.


In short, it can be said that in the political sphere Liberalism stood for restricting the state interference to the minimum and favoured policies which led to the promotion of liberties of individuals and groups.

For the attainment of this objective it favoured institutions like separation of powers, parliamentary control over executive, judicial review, protection of interests of minorities etc. In other words, it wanted the ultimate power to rest with the people and insisted on the accountability of the government to the people.

In course of time the principle of economic liberty was also emphasized by the British Liberals. This demand received impetus from the constitutional settlement of 1789 and the civil peace which prevailed in England in the ensuing years. The lead in this regard was taken by Adam Smith and other classical economists.

They pleaded for a self-regulating market, unrestrained cither by monopoly or political intervention. They also laid emphasis on principles like free contact, rule of law and voluntarism and collaboration for mutual benefit.


All restrictions on imports and exports were opposed and it was asserted that the individual should be completely free to exploit the natural resources and distribute the eco­nomic dividends as he likes.

8. Belief in freedom for individual in various spheres viz. political, economic, social, cultural, spiritual etc.

9. There is no conflict and contradiction between the interests of the individual and the state.

10. Complete freedom in the economic sphere and non-interference by state.