A classic history of the years before World War I is also a source of inspiration for those who wish to create a more equal and just society, argues Alex Snowdon
George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England (Serif 2012), 367pp.
What does a crisis of the existing political order look like? What causes such a crisis, and how can it be resolved? In a period like our own, George Dangerfield’s re-issued book on the turbulence and drama of pre-World-War-One Britain is well worth revisiting. It’s a classic work of popular history, first published in 1935, that documents the beginning of the disintegration of a long-established political and social order.
Focusing on the few years before World War One, a period of multiple challenges for the Liberal government, Dangerfield skilfully combines the story of parliamentary politics – its intrigues, debates and conflicts - with the role of people (Irish nationalists, suffragettes, militant trade unionists) outside the political elite. Liberal Britain before 1914 was seemingly secure, prosperous and self-assured. There’s a memorable speech in JB Priestley’s play An Inspector Calls, written in the 1940s but set in 1912, in which Birling, a wealthy industrialist, pompously informs his family that Britain is enjoying prosperity like never before, and will continue indefinitely to experience progress in all areas of society. Priestley highlights the irony of Birling’s remarks by having him declare that an example of this magnificent progress is the wondrous new ocean liner the Titanic – shortly to have its maiden voyage - which he declares is absolutely unsinkable. This proves to be a metaphor for the wider complacency of his class, and also the illusory nature of the much-vaunted progress.
It wasn’t just the outbreak of war that eroded such certainties as faith in economic progress and the stability of the old political order. Pre-war economic problems fuelled workers’ resistance on an unprecedented scale, fuelling leaps in the size and combativity of the trade unions. Women asserted their desire for greater independence, expressed primarily in the movement for the vote. Stirrings in Ireland created serious problems for the Liberal government.
The crisis before World War I
British politics was therefore fraying before war began. This book is all about the growing tensions and the clashes that brought an era of British politics to an end. Stylishly written as well as profoundly insightful, it contains vivid portraits of many of the important political figures of the time, from Edward Carson to Sylvia Pankhurst to David Lloyd George, that often reveal wider social dynamics in the process.
After initially sketching the story of official politics during 1906-10, the focus moves (for the remainder of the book) to the four years immediately before the First World War. It broadens out from parliament to the extra-parliamentary movements that shook the government, the ruling class and the state. Above all, it is the story of three major developments; the struggles over Irish Home Rule; the movement for women’s suffrage; and the Great Unrest (a wave of mass workers’ militancy), and how they shook the established regime.
The current Tory government’s deal with the Democratic Unionist Party has drawn attention to the political current represented by the latter, yet most people have only the vaguest knowledge of the history of Ulster Unionism (or its relationship with the Tory Party and the British state). Dangerfield brings to life the multi-faceted conflicts over the Irish question before World War One and conveys the important role played by Unionism in the political turmoil of the time. Crucially, he documents the relationship, practical and ideological, between Unionist forces and the Conservative Party.
The Liberal government depended on support from Irish MPs, who wanted Home Rule for the Irish. The Liberals sought to pursue Home-Rule legislation, but faced resistance from the Protestant community in Ireland’s northern counties. The Tories opportunistically aligned with these Unionists, led by Edward Carson, who were determined to stop Home Rule by any means necessary. This period strengthened the Unionist component in Conservative ideology, with support for Irish Protestants and for retaining the subjugation of Ireland, becoming an integral element in the party’s worldview.
Dangerfield has a wonderful knack for capturing political trends or social groups in a brief, pithy characterisation. Of the archetypal Ulster Unionist, he writes: ‘He utterly despised his Catholic neighbours, they were no countrymen of his: they were a lower order of human being’ (p.76). He brutally summarises the Tories’ political cynicism: ‘With Ulster’s bigotry it could break the Liberal Party’ (p.77). Indeed, the Tories had no qualms about encouraging the bigotry, prejudice and, increasingly, violence of Carson’s supporters, if it meant weakening the Liberals and strengthening their own hand. Dangerfield exposes how cynically the Tories beat the Orange drum.
Women’s liberation and workers’ struggles
The other two strands of Dangerfield’s narrative are more inspiring for socialists: the women’s struggle for the vote, and the growing militant workers’ movement that became known as the Great Unrest. Dangerfield’s greatest strength was in telling a story and the book is first-rate narrative history. The Pankhurst family are at the core of his chapter on women, which helps make sure that it brims with strong characters, memorable incidents and conflict. His account of the suffragettes is sympathetic (particularly notable for the time in which it was written) if not always fully grasping the social and political forces involved.
The conflict between the suffragettes and a largely hostile and hopelessly opportunistic Liberal administration is central to Dangerfield’s account. He mercilessly exposes the duplicity, moral cowardice and inhumanity of Liberal politicians in their treatment of suffragettes, especially those who spent time in prison. The courage and commitment of these women shines through. The emphasis on direct action is presented sympathetically, but not uncritically, and there is a strong sense of why many in the movement were driven to tactics that would a few years earlier have seemed very unlikely.
The focus is overwhelmingly on middle-class women. This partly reflects the composition of the movement, but not entirely: there is a tendency to overlook important examples of working-class women organising. There are missed opportunities to explore connections between the struggle for the vote and, on the other hand, the left and the labour movement. Admittedly, the fragmentation between different struggles was precisely one of the great problems of the time, but there were nonetheless areas of overlap and dialogue that could have been explored. There are hints of this when Dangerfield writes about Sylvia Pankhurst, who would come to embody the interconnection of the working-class movement and the suffrage issue.
However, the heart of the book is the chapter – by far the longest in the book – on the Great Unrest, referred to as ‘the workers’ rebellion’. For the 1930s this was remarkably innovative and unusual; even today, this magnificent period in workers’ militancy is hardly a frequent subject for popular history written for a general readership. Dangerfield’s detailed, sweeping and tremendously illuminating telling of the story is his book’s greatest contribution to historiography.
It has its limitations. There is not as much emphasis on workers’ own voices as modern left-wing readers, accustomed to a greater focus on ‘history from below’, may expect. The author also doesn’t fully integrate the different elements of his story into a coherent account of what drove the rebellion, what it represented and what its impact was, though he provides a wealth of material for developing such an account (with many good insights). He doesn’t really get to grips with the different political currents in the labour movement and how they influenced the direction of events. There are moments when Dangerfield somewhat overstates the elemental nature of the revolt, overlooking the role of conscious organisation and leadership.
Yet, for all this, it is still a classic. The scale and breadth of these events – their genuinely mass character - is powerfully conveyed. Nobody, after reading the chapter on the Great Unrest, could plausibly argue that it was an insignificant episode. Dangerfield also has an eye for the telling detail and the lively anecdote; for the particular elements that illustrate the broader theme. This is true in relation to both sides of his story: the panic, disarray and at times brutality of a desperate ruling class, and the inspiring collective will of a workers’ movement discovering its own strength.
One interesting strand running through the chapter is the barely-concealed collusion between employers and government. A combination of coercion and consent was applied to a dangerous situation for the ruling elite. There are examples of ruthless violence and suppression, but the subtler methods are also documented. A good example is the role of John Burns, a leading, militant trade unionist, two decades earlier, but by then a Liberal Cabinet minister, in helping bring the London transport strike to an end. Another great leader of the earlier New Unionism, Tom Mann, emerges (justifiably) as a rather more heroic figure.
The Strange Death of Liberal Englandcovers a period of British history that ought to be better known and more widely discussed. It is no accident that it isn’t. The three major elements of political drama in those years are all uncomfortable reading for the powerful, but a source of inspiration for all those who look to collective self-activity, especially that of the working class, to create a more democratic, equal and just society.
This reissue of The Strange Death of Liberal Englandis available through the Serif Books website, an imprint of O/R Books.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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