Attempts to form a Centre Party in Britain, 1880-1980

Ian Bradley looks at the history of a topical political issue

The idea of a centre party in British politics, which is once again in the news, has a long pedigree. During the last 100 years there have been at least three serious attempts to set up such a body. The precedents which they offer are not very encouraging, and Mr. Roy Jenkins and other contemporary advocates of the idea might well find it instructive to ponder them before they launch their efforts to create a realignment of political forces.

In the past, the initiative for a new centre party, as distinct from a coalition of existing parties or a ministry of all the talents, has tended to come primarily from Conservative politicians worried about the rightwards drift of their party. A powerful subsidiary force has been the middle classes' recurrent sense of isolation between the organised political might of the forces of capital and labour.

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