This should probably be a glossary post, but this is an interesting word that changes its meaning with gay abandon.
Depending on the context, it can mean any of the following:
Social liberal : the most common use of the word, particularly in the United States. A liberal is someone who largely supports government programmes to promote redistribution of wealth or opportunity. Will tend to support icky things such as a woman’s right to control her uterus and men sticking their willies in the bums of other men.
Economic liberal : ironically, most US Conservatives are liberals. A liberal is someone who supports small government with minimum intervention in the economy. Low taxes for the rich supposedly lead to greater wealth accumulation, which encourages innovation and therefore a larger economy. Those at the bottom become richer as the size of the economy drags up living standards. State services are kept at a minimum to ecourage self-reliance.
Neo-liberal : see above. Neo-liberalism took off in the 1970s in Britain and America as a response to the apparent failure of Keynesian economics and the welfare state. The argument being that social security caused welfare dependency and sucked money away from those who could use it to create jobs. Classic liberalism was a product of the Georgian and Victorian eras as a response to eighteenth-century protectionism. Business men and financiers became concerned with trading restrictions such as import taxes (often levelled between regions of the same country, not just internationally), royal monopolies and fixed food prices. Therefore, a liberal is someone who supports low taxes and low state interference.
Liberal Party : see above. As a response to Tory, aristocratic, rural protectionists, the Whigs became bourgeois, urban liberals. Later, as the UK developed a party system, the Conservatives and the Liberals became the two biggest political groups in the country. A liberal is someone who is a member of the Liberal Party. Or a liberal is someone who is a Whig. Ironically, of course, the Tories (or Conservatives) are now economic liberals – although they aren’t social liberals. And the liberals are no longer liberals, because that party no longer exists.
Liberal-Democrat Party : The old Liberal Party fell to the third largest party after the War and never recovered. It had a few strongholds, notably in the South West and in Scotland, but it ceased to be a force after the rise of the Labour Party. In the 1980s, the Liberals formed a pact with the Social Democratic Party, and then formally merged to become the Liberal Democrats. A liberal is someone who supports or is a member of the LibDems.However, the liberals are not liberal. Well, they are by the first definition in this list, but not by the second. And they were by the fourth, but are no longer, because the Liberal Party doesn’t really exist in its old form. So the liberals aren’t liberal, but they are in a coalition government with the Conservatives. Who are liberals by definitions two and three. But clearly not by one. Which should cause a tension between the LibDems and the Tories, because although the liberals are liberal (1), they’re no longer liberal (4). But they manage to make it work because their leader (Nick Clegg) is a liberal (1) liberal (5). Now I’m confusing myself…
The point is – if indeed I ever had one – that the terms is quite difficult to pin down, and means different things to different people. Think long and hard about what you mean when you use it.