For most of the period after 1945, one of the most difficult problems facing the Liberal Party had been that of identity. Committed Liberal activists believed they knew where they stood — though often disagreeing on this issue among themselves — but the voting public was altogether less certain. In part, this reflected the way in which the post-war Conservative and Labour parties, dominated by their left and right wings, respectively, had competed for the centre ground of British politics. That convergence was often disputed and denied. The two parties had a vested interest in maintaining the outward appearance of confrontation, stressing the extremism of their opponents — that Labour threatened full-blown socialism, and the Conservatives would unleash the unbridled forces of the free market. The Liberals also saw considerable advantage in projecting their opponents as being at the extremes of the political spectrum. In 1980, David Steel suggested that post-war British politics had seen relatively small changes in public opinion result in alternating periods of Conservative and Labour government, accompanied by ‘violent switches in public policy’.
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