Between the 1880s and 1914, British liberalism underwent a significant transformation. During this period, liberalism was redefined by liberal intellectuals so as to be more explicitly an ideology of social reform. At the same time, from 1906-1914 Liberal governments enacted a radically new social welfare policy. Both of these phenomena were the product of a growing awareness on the part of most Liberals that their party was critically dependent upon the votes of working men for electoral success. Following the formation of the Labour Representation Committee in 1900 and the launching of Joseph Chamberlain's tariff reform campaign in 1903, the Liberals were faced with an overt challenge from both the left and the right to their claim to be the party of the working man. The articulation of a new liberalism—both as ideology and as policy—was central to the Liberal response to this challenge.
If, however, the Liberal party were to persuade working-class voters that it remained the best political instrument for defending their interests and promoting their needs, the evidence of a transformed liberalism could not be limited to the ideology of intellectuals and the policy of the parliamentary party. The language and behavior of the party activists in the constituencies had to reflect a similar transformation. These were the men who represented liberalism to the local voter. At the same time, these were the men upon whom the national party depended for the unstinting work that was crucial to electoral success. This Liberal rank-and-file was dominated by middle-class Nonconformists. They shared with Liberals a belief in individual liberty and an abhorrence of privilege. Their political agenda—disestablishment of the Anglican church and an end to its privileged position in the education system, temperance reform, the application of Christian principles to foreign policy—reflected these concerns, and after 1886 it increasingly was identified with the policy of the Liberal party. To what degree, then, did the new liberalism affect them?