Given the liberals were the party that “opposed” privilege after Gladstone-that is the party that opposed “artificial” distinctions what did this mean in terms of policy and support?
There were a few issues on which the party was untied against most or many conservatives. They were united in opposition to Protectionism with all the distinction that implied (including a tight vision of the empire and the rates of tariffs themselves) the liberal party indeed - all defectors from the conservatives in this period indeed were free trade (ironically including at least one mp who was also a fanatical anti-Catholic). Not surprisingly given the intensity of the split of 1886 just about all liberals afterwards were liberals who could at least accept Home Rule. Similarly the great achievements of Gladstone's ministries from the professional civil service to a high franchise including more or less all non pauper heads of house hounds held them together.
However on other issues as we shall see there was an almost bewitching diversity right up to World War 1 - some liberals were more free market than Gladstone himself while others were essentially free trade socialists, some hated unions while others loved them, some embraced women's suffragee while others backed pamphlets declaring it "a national danger" some called for the abolition of the empire others for it's expansion including by war, most were quite sympathetic to at least an extension of disestablishment while others regarded their highest duty in politics to support Protestantism and so forth.
However on the Great Cleavages of British Politics they consistently leaned on the side that gave less "privilege". So as a whole they were more opposed to imperialism and sympathetic to dissenting nationalism, less sympathetic to the military, more relaxed about immigration, more opposed to established churches., more opposed to landowners and so forth. As already mentioned trade union reform was one area they found hard to assimilate – no doubt why it produced the only new party in this period.. However the fact they were more inclined to particular positions did not mean they too them- liberal governments made no move to disestablish the Church of England or relax immigration laws for example-there was just more opponents of the Church of England’s establishment among liberals than Conservatives.
However where positions was more popular with them than with the Conservatives a dislike of "privilege" and distinction of one sort or another generally can be seen behind.. For example they were more supportive of female suffrage (though their leadership terrified that women would vote conservative was more sceptical. This is even true for issues which at first glance would seem to have nothing to do which such an agenda.. Take the drink trade- the liberals were the party that included the large majority of the supporters of restriction and prohibition of alcohol. This is often seen as just reflecting their support base (of which more latter) but I think it actually was natural ideologically as well-alcohol can easily be seen as form of distinction-and the industry itself could be seen as using a poison to give themselves unfair advantage and to lower their consumers below the norm. The same was true in taxation. It may struck the reader as odd that the liberals concentrated so much of their taxation on land taxes (rising and receiving a ferocious rural backlash) and inheritance taxes (at least today one of the most unpopular tax-though only a minority of the population paid or pay it). But they fitted in well with notions of privilege, many liberals were obsessed with the notion of a "social surplus" that in some way had been acquired- land could be see in the words of the radical song "the land" as a stolen propety given as the result of priviledge.
The land, the land,
'Twas God who made the land,
The land, the land,
The ground on which we stand,
Why should we be beggars
With a ballot in our hand?
God gave the land to the people."
Protectionism could rely on no such defence.
In a sense the liberal coalition were those groups who responded well to these appeals. Those who opposed the privileges of the established churches were very liberal-and the more fervent the opposition the more solidly Liberal. Weslyan Methodists for example tended to be rather less liberal voting than others Catholics (in mainland Britiain) were nearly all supporters as were Quakers.
This was reflected in and shaped regional voting patterns-bastions of "dissent" whether in rural Wales the Western Isles or Cornwall were also bastions of the liberal party -as were heavily Catholic areas (though Catholics seemed to have more success in mobilizing Protestants of al stripe to vote Conservative in hostility).Professional Free Thinkers (as opposed to those who were merely not pious) tended to be strong liberals for example Brandlaugh the militant atheist whose dissenter heavy constituency continually re-elected him when expelled from parliament- (in the end the Speaker gave in) .. In this he was backed by Gladstone ( who loathed both atheism and Brandlaugh's pro Contraception views) on the grounds of dislike of "privilege" among faiths.
Haters of drink (demographically a very heavily overlapping group non Anglican Protestants being the bastion of abstention in this era) similarly tended to be Liberals. Those who benefitted from free trade or would not suffer from inheritance tax or land taxation. Self employed workers without much property were much more liberal than the national average-as it's image of helping the unprivileged and autofocus fitted in so well with the party.
This led to a politics where the regions of the country differed a great deal in voting behaviour but the classes while distinct were much less so particularly away from the very top of the income spectrum-. By the mid 20th century by contrast the Tories new opponent- Labour would (outside Ireland) be fairly hough not overwhelmingly competitive throughout the regions of Great Britain but have it's voting base massively correlated with class. The Politics of Privilege meant voting was much more based on sectarian alignment, trade patterns and attitude to the nation than it was to be in latter years.
The Picture is of the aforementioned Charles Bradlaugh- a passionate liberal who hated both Socialism and Conservatism alike.