The term ‘liberal’ extends back to the Middle Ages and was used in several different contexts over the centuries. For example, the Latin term, liber, describes a class of free men – men who were not slaves. The term was more recently used to suggest generosity. Liberal can also be used to describe our social attitudes. A person is described as liberal if open to a wide variety of perspectives.

    Again, although the term dates to the Middle Ages, liberalism was not used as a political label until the early 19th century. It is possible that this first occurred in Spain in 1812, when the name Liberals was used by a new party established in opposition to the more conservative groups supporting the king. The term was afterwards very quickly developed in politics. By around the 1840s, liberalism was a term used across Europe to describe radical political ideas.

    Liberalism was not however used as a clear political label until the early 19th century. The type of ideas and principles that could be described as liberalism had gradually developed for almost 300 years previously. For example, according to John Gray – an expert in history and development of liberalism – it was in the 17th century that some of the ideas were developed that would eventually form liberalism.

    There has been much discussion on how liberal ideas developed during this period – between the 1600s and 1800s. Those studying the history of political ideas have chosen to follow several different paths, addressing a number of important social and political developments. These however are the most prominent:

    • • The number of significant political revolutions that happened in England (1688), America (1776) and France (1789); they highlighted, in different ways, important liberal themes. The themes included individualism, tolerance, freedom and the need to restrict political power.
    • The Enlightenment, namely the cultural movement seen during the 18th century. This movement questioned the traditions of religion, politics and learning, showing that people could use their ability to reason in order to understand the world.
    • • The development of the modern capitalist society of the 17th century, when a middle class was created. The members of this new social class were not willing for their economic and political freedom to be restricted, as had happened under the absolute monarchy system during previous centuries.

    It is therefore apparent that a number of significant developments contributed to the development of liberal ideas. Universally, political, social and economic changes were seen between the 17th and 19th centuries and one of the outcomes that followed was liberalism.