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The Strange Death of Liberal England ()


Modern Library Top 100 Non-Fiction Books of the 20th Century

Say, is there Beauty yet to find?
And Certainty? and Quiet kind?
Deep meadows yet, for to forget
The lies, and truths, and pain? oh! yet
Stands the Church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?

   Rupert Brooke (1887Ð1915), The Old Vicarage, Grantchester


This book is pretty much universally revered by those who have read it, and I'm no different. As an account of how the long Liberal epoch in Britain came to a crashing halt it is unsurpassed and as literature it is certainly one of the best written history books ever. The story Mr. Dangerfield tells is essentially that of how the British Liberal Party fought off a challenge from the arch-conservative House of Lords but then succumbed to a combination of revolutions: the Irish demand for Home Rule; the campaign for women's suffrage; and a series of strikes brought on by labor. Together these factors effectively destroyed the party and the philosophy that had governed Britain for decades; thus the "strange death" of the title. In reality though, the title is ironic, because, as Mr. Dangerfield shows, Liberalism was a politics at war with itself.

We can see the problems already as Mr. Dangerfield sets the scene, which we'll quote from at length, since it also gives a flavor of his wonderful writing style:
The England upon which Mr. Asquith landed in May 1910 [returning from holiday, ed.], was in a very peculiar condition. It was about to shrug from its shoulders--at first irritably, then with violence--a venerable burden, a kind of sack. It was about to get rid of its Liberalism.

Liberalism in its Victorian plenitude had been an easy burden to bear, for it contained--and who can doubt it?--a various and variable collection of gold, stocks, Bibles, progressive thoughts, and decent inhibitions. It was solid and sensible and just a little mysterious; and though one could not exactly gambol with such a weight on one's shoulders, it permitted one to walk in a dignified manner and even to execute from time to time those eccentric little steps which are so necessary to the health of Englishmen.

Whatever his political convictions may have been, the Englishman of the '70s and '80s was something of a Liberal at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in reform. He was strongly in favor of peace--that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance and, if possible, in the name of God. If fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncracy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr. Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens.

But somehow or other, as the century turned, the burden of Liberalism grew more and more irksome; it began to give out a dismal, rattling sound; it was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed upon its contents, turning them into nothing more than bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past. What could be the matter? Liberalism was still embodied in a large political party; it enjoyed the support of philosophy and religion; it was intelligible, and it was English. But it was also slow; and it so far transcended politics and economics as to impose itself upon behaviour as well. For a nation which wanted to revive a sluggish blood by running very fast and in any direction, Liberalism was clearly an inconvenient burden.

As for the Liberal Party, it was in the unfortunate position of having to run, too. It was the child of Progress, which is not only an illusion, but an athletic illusion, and which insists that it is better to hurl oneself backwards than to stand still. By 1910, the Liberals had reached a point where they could no longer advance; before them stood a barrier of Capital which they dared not attack. Behind them stood the House of Lords.
The Liberal contradiction then was that, where they form a large enough body to be the governing power, the middle class--much as they may wish to be, for psychological reasons--can never be progressive, because progress must come at the expense of the society the dominate. In effect their progressivism is directed against themselves and, while a unique confluence of events and factors may from time to time make it possible to ignore, that contradiction can never be fully reconciled. Mr. Dangerfield captures the problem nicely in his description of David Lloyd George: "[H]e represented--or seemed to represent--all those dangerous and possibly subversive opinions which Liberalism, in its grave game of progress, was forced to tolerate." A political party which is the governing institution in a society yet which has to tolerate subversion is obviously unstable at its very core.

As I say, one can have few complaints about the nearly poetic fashion in which Mr. Dangerfield renders the history of the inevitable collapse. However, one must take exception to his tone and to the shortsightedness of his analysis. The tale is really a tragedy, as the decent England of shopkeepers hurls itself upon the rocks, the confrontation with the Lords destroying the one remaining brake upon this urge to suicide. Christianity, capitalism, free trade, Victorian morality and patriarchy may all have been problematic, but the furies unleashed in their stead were catastrophic and, combined the the Great War, left Britain merely a shell of its former self in just a few years. Yet Mr. Dangerfield, as his line about "sluggish blood" suggests, welcomes these changes and even the violence that they carried with them. He's particularly dismissive, unfortunately so, of the Tories and of conservatism, the party and the philosophy that might have prevented what was to come.

It's especially curious then, but I think telling, that he closes the book with a longing-filled portrait of the poet Rupert Brooke, the final flower of the culture of pre-War. This elegiac chapter is reminiscent of George Orwell's great novel, Coming Up for Air, wherein the putatively Socialist author looks back on the lost England of his youth with obvious regret for its passing. So does Mr. Dangerfield conclude his book, after describing Brooke's death in WWI, with the following plaintive lines:
[W]ith his death one sees the extinction of Liberal England. Standing beside his moonlit grave, one looks back. All the violence of the pre-war world has vanished, and in its place there glow, year into backward year, the diminishing vistas of that other England, the England where the Grantchester church clock stood at ten to three, where there was Beauty and Certainty and Quiet, and where nothing was real. Today we know it for what it was; but there are moments, very human moments, when we could almost find it in our hearts to envy those who saw it, and who never lived to see the new world.
When you look at the England of 1914-1978 (roughly from the War until Margaret Thatcher), when progressivism was given its head, and compare it to those diminishing vistas of which Mr. Dangerfield speaks, it seems to me awfully difficult to argue that the conservatives weren't right and that the British middle classes should not have tossed over their progressivist cant in favor of conservatism. They should have fought to keep the clock hands where they were. Of course, Mr. Dangerfield was writing in 1935, when it was still possible to believe that Progressivism's other children--socialism, communism, fascism, nazism--might turn out better than had Liberalism, but still, his failure to even consider the alternative does take something away from what's otherwise a marvelous book.


(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A-)

  

Websites:

Book-related and General Links:

   -REVIEW: of The Downfall of the Liberal Party: 1914-1935 by Trevor Wilson (George Dangerfield, Political Science Quarterly)
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