Friday, October 16, 2015

Book Review-The Edwardian Crisis; Britain 1901 - 10

"By the early 1900s the two major parties were in danger of fragmenting under the weight of internal and external pressures."
It could be argued that a proper political education is at least as much a historical as a doctrinal one. The distance of time affords a more dispassionate, no dog in the hunt, perspective. For modern conservatives the beginning of the twentieth century is of interest because a) it seems to be the period in which the realized ideal of a limited state came to an end, and b) it was an unusually tumultuous period politically. In short, from the perspective of 2015, the question of what happened naturally arises.

David Powell's The Edwardian Crisis is framed as a reconsideration of George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (a book recently cited by the columnist Michael Barone) but it stands easily on its own. Whereas Dangerfield's account of the period reads like a flamboyant prosecutor's brief, Powell's has the feel of a judge's summary. The Edwardian Crisis also covers more ground in a 173 pages than Dangerfield does in 363.

Before delving into the specifics of the four 'crises' Powell considers the Victorian legacy and the issue of poverty. The economic success of the former "generated rising expectations about the level of future comfort" which were later thwarted when price inflation outstripped wage increases. The awareness of poverty increased at the same time via reports and sociological studies resulting in tentative reform measures which in turn generated a "administrative tradition of reform...with civil servants and Whitehall experts working behind-the-scenes." Poverty, for Powell, is the focal point for the subsequent 'crises'.

The crisis events for Dangerfield and Powell are 1) a constitutional crisis over the boundaries between Parliament and the House of Lords, 2) suffragism, 3) labor unrest, and 4) Irish Home Rule. The first was arguably the most consequential, affecting the others, while the last was probably the most dangerous.

The constitutional dispute came about when the Lords, in contradistinction to the tradition of not touching finance bills, struck down the 1909 "Peoples" budget. While Dangerfield presents this as the Unionist/Conservative dominated Lords outrageously thwarting the Liberal Party's budget, Powell is typically more measured. Powell notes that "the 1909 budget was the hinge upon which the social reform programme of the New Liberalism turned. It established the principle of using the budget as a means of raising finance for new areas of state spending, and of redistributing wealth". And he observes that by the later, agreed to, understanding the 1909 budget would not have been considered a finance measure.

The resolution of the constitutional crisis after two elections and an agreement that the House of Lords could delay, but not stop parliamentary measures passed unchanged three times, opened the way for the suffragism and Home Rule disputes, by eliminating the Lords as a blocking agent, and in the latter case making the Liberal Party dependent on the Irish Nationalists. It is in regard to the labor crisis that Dangerfield's account is superior in that he focuses on strikes, labor unrest, and the rise of national unions across occupations in the form of the Triple Alliance, whereas Powell spends roughly half his pages on the Labour Party. Surely it is the potential of a consolidated, general strike that presented the greater legal and societal challenge. But this is to quibble, and Powell in each chapter's summation is masterful in bringing up the multi-dimensions and cross-currents at play in each of the disputes for all those involved.

So why read a book about events 100 years ago in a different country who's findings the author admits are "necessarily equivocal". First, it's just a good read, which ought to be enough. Second, there is scarcely a page which is absent something that will be strikingly familiar to the current observer of American politics, foremost the sense of political actors being forced to resolve issues without any good options available. And finally, there is perhaps the cautionary idea of how vulnerable a political system is when the participants play the game without any restraint. Who was it that observed that "history may not repeat, but it rhymes"?

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