Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910 - 1914

George Dangerfield’s The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) is a strange history book. Entertainingly written it is also impossible to take at face value, in part I suspect for reasons that make it entertaining. The liberality of England is based on principles of free trade, property, liberty, and respectability. In the period covered (1910 – 1914), the Liberal Party holds political power with Herbert Asquith as PM and David Lloyd George and Winston Churchill in Cabinet roles.

The actual Liberal Party’ run ends during WWI when George broke with Asquith to form a coalition government, but Dangerfield’s thesis is that the actual break or failure occurred earlier with the outbreak of WWI bringing about a temporary reprieve.

What brings about this ‘death’ is the failure to deal with four main political issues, a constitutional crisis brought about by the House of Lords rejecting the government’s budget, unprecedented labor unrest with labor moving in the direction of a single union and a tactic of general strikes, Home Rule for Ireland, and voting rights for women. Dangerfield’s take on all of these issues is that liberal England and the Liberal Party failed on all of these challenges and there is a note of good riddance in the telling. But even within the offered narrative one senses this isn’t at all fair. Asquith is described throughout as passive, but it is apparent that he doesn’t have any good options. When every politician is viewed with disdain, every action sneered at, one gets the sense that something important is being left out.

What comes across is that the pillar of England that falls away--through claims too long delayed, anxiety, or boredom—is respectability. The agitators here are all playing without any restraint. Not surprisingly the political system isn’t able to cope. Sort of like America these days.

No comments:

Post a Comment