Paul Foot reviews The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield. The book covers the collapse of Liberalism in the early 20th century and growing resistance from the downtrodden that challenged the very right of the ruling class to govern.
It is a rare pleasure not just to recommend a book but to insist with all possible powers of persuasion that anyone lucky enough not to have read it should instantly treat themselves. George Dangerfield’s book covers a period of intense warfare - though the warfare is not as popular as it usually is among historians since the wars were not between nations or races but between governed and governors in the same country. What makes that warfare even more distasteful to official palates is that against all odds the wrong side, the dispossessed, seemed to be winning.
The book covers three areas of revolt: the Irish revolt against British rule (and the revolt against that revolt of the Orangemen of the North); the revolt of the women, who had no vote, even though some 60 percent of the men had it; and the revolt of the workers against their employers. Each of these stories takes up about 100 pages, and the last quarter is devoted to what Dangerfield calls ‘the crisis’, the amazing first seven months of 1914 in which all three revolts came to the brink of victory only to be consumed in the unspeakable atrocity of the First World War. More than once, from this account, the First World War emerges not just as an inevitable clash between imperialist forces but as a great conspiracy of the rulers everywhere to rid themselves even if only temporarily from the intolerable demands of their subjects.
There are, of course, many history books about this period, many of them written from a position friendly to workers, suffragettes and Irish nationalists, and many of them perhaps more scrupulous with the facts or closer to what might be considered the correct line. Even after 61 years, however, George Dangerfield’s book is supreme. Every page, indeed every sentence, is lifted above the average by his irresistible writing style. The hallmark of this style is that most dangerous of all the weapons in the challenger’s armoury: mockery. The whole book is a mockery of the pretensions of the rulers of the time, most notably the mandarins of Asquith’s Liberal government.
Dangerfield describes Asquith as the sort of person you would expect to find at high tables at Oxford and Cambridge colleges, ‘a man almost completely lacking in imagination or enthusiasm’. The same merciless mockery is turned on the Orange leader Carson, the Tory leaders under Bonar Law, the Irish Nationalist parliamentary leader John Redmond, the employers and their indefatigable government negotiator George Askwith. Ministerial reactions and statements are constantly reduced to that ridiculous hypocrisy and pomposity which derives from a relentless desire to hang on to other people’s property.
The theme of the book is the collapse of a L(l)iberalism which only in 1906 had seemed unassailable. In the general election that year the Tories were engulfed by the biggest parliamentary landslide achieved by any party ever. Their huge majority was reduced to nothing in the two elections of 1910, and the Liberal government became dependent for its survival on the Irish Nationalists. This is all old hat, churned over by innumerable students of official parliamentary politics. The thrill of Dangerfield’s book is that he carries the Liberal government’s impotence far beyond the boundaries of parliamentary statistics.
The government and increasingly the entire ruling class were trapped by what he calls ‘a new energy’ among the downtrodden which grew to such a proportion as to challenge the very right of the ruling class to govern.
In Ireland the government was trapped by its reluctance either to accede to the mutinous forces under Carson or (even less) to give way to the growing demand for Irish independence. On suffrage, the government was trapped by a reluctance to extend the vote either to unpropertied men or to women (the two reluctances, as the book proves, were closely allied). The greatest parliamentary impotence of all, however, was brought about by the constant strikes of a newly confident working class. In 1911, 961,000 workers were involved in strikes, a figure which seemed impossible - and was 300,000 higher than ever before. In 1912, however, the figures had risen again ≠ to a fantastic 1,233,016. Dangerfield brilliantly describes the most devastating feature of these strikes: their unpredictability. Government negotiators, employers, trade union leaders - all were powerless not only to handle the strikes but even to predict where and when they would happen next.
On all three fronts, in those early months of 1914, the prospects looked good. In Ireland a civil war loomed, with the favourites the armed volunteers who demanded total independence for all Ireland. Votes for women, as Dangerfield reveals, were effectively conceded in June 1914, though more as the result of the activities of Sylvia Pankhurst and her working class supporters than her sister Christobel from her safe vantage point in Paris. Above all, the workers’ revolt had crystallised into a triple alliance of the big unions which threatened a general strike.
In these circumstances, the impotence of the government brought it home to the British ruling class that they could no longer afford two political parties, one reactionary, one allegedly reformist. The Liberal Party was finished, never again to re-emerge as a remotely relevant force in British politics. Good riddance, says George Dangerfield, in a typical but scintillating display of his glorious prose style, and in a passage which should be read with interest by the apostles of modern Lib-Labourism:
‘The Liberal government was dying with extreme reluctance and considerable skill; you might almost consider it healthy, unless you took a very close look, and it had erected such a fence around it of procrastination and promises that a close look was almost impossible to obtain.
‘The workers were simply dissatisfied with it, they could hardly tell why; and indeed that fine old Liberal Hegelianism of at once believing in freedom and not believing in freedom was beyond the understanding of all but the elect. To interfere in the questions of pensions, of health, strikes, education, conditions of labour - ah yes this could be done; to destroy the absolute powers of the Lords, to cripple the vast landed estates - such actions were highly desirable; but to insist that employers should pay a living wage? That was a frightful impairment of freedom’.
From Reviews, Socialist Review, No.211, September 1997, p.26.
Copyright © 1997 Socialist Review.
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