Limits to liberalism

Vernon Bogdanor’s The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain explores the roots of the modern British political system in what the author considers to be the foundational period of modern politics, the years between 1895 and 1914. The result is an epic narrative, but not an entirely coherent one. There is much to admire here, such as a clear-eyed view of the failures of the Unionist governments to “kill the Irish Home Rule by kindness”, which contrasts the naive reforming instincts of the Chief Secretary for Ireland between 1900 and 1905, George Wyndham , with the cynical and divisive Ulster Unionists, who sought to create a protestant laager in the north of Ireland, over which they could rule in perpetuity. Bogdanor gives a convincing interpretation of the women’s suffrage movement, highlighting the contemporary antipathy towards the suffragettes’ militant tactics. Best of all, there is a serious attempt to explain the behavior of all the players in the constitutional crisis that followed the rejection by the House of Lords of Lloyd George’s “People’s Budget” of 1909 – even that of the Unionist “ditchers” who in 1911 dared the Liberal government to force the new king, George V, to create 250 peers to overcome the Lords’ resistance. Overall, there is a tone of studied neutrality that, unlike many histories since the millennium, seeks to inform readers rather than hector them.

The secondary sources Bogdanor has consulted are a little dated, however, and he has a worryingly journalistic habit of challenging “myths about the period, judgments that have become common currency” without acknowledging where these originate, or who may believe them. This might be forgivable in a general history of this kind, were it not for the fact that at least two of these “myths”—the inherent antisemitism of the Aliens Act 1905 and the deliberate cruelty of the British concentration camps of the Second Boer War They are not convincingly refuted. The section on the Aliens Act concludes that “it was in practice directed against the Jews” and the passage on concentration camps concludes that the treatment of Boer women and children in the camps was “almost criminal negligence”. It seems almost as if the journalist in Professor Bogdanor, who wrote the provocative introduction, is somewhat at odds with the objective scholar who analyzed the evidence and reached a judgment in the main text.

Bogdanor, a professor of government at King’s College London and an expert on contemporary constitutional matters, is a little too fond of looking forward into the twentieth century, despite his declaration that he has “tried to write from the perspective of the past”. Considering the impact of the First, Second and Cold Wars on British politics, this is unfortunate. George Orwell (only eleven years old at the date when the book ends) is quoted rather too frequently – though not for his coruscating exposure of imperial corruption in both his journalism and Burmese Days. References are frequently made to the imperial sympathies of Ernest Bevin and Herbert Morrison, to the voting behavior of women in the twentieth century and to the speeches of the general secretary of the TUC in 1965, as if these were preordained by the prewar history, not by the circumstances of the years after 1918. Does a history of the early years of the twentieth century really need eight references to Margaret Thatcher?

For Bogdanor, the most successful political leader of the period is neither Lord Salisbury nor David Lloyd George, but Henry Campbell-Bannerman, the Liberal prime minister from 1905 to 1908, whom he paints as the man who reunited the Liberals, outwitted Asquith’s attempted leadership challenge, built good relations with Edward VII and reorientated the government’s priorities to focus on the needs of the less fortunate and defenseless in society, such as children and the elderly. On the crucial issue of whether these years saw the “death” of Liberal England, as George Dangerfield memorably argued in the 1930s, Bogdanor is clear. The Liberal Party may have been facing multiple extra-parliamentary threats, from militant trade unionists, suffragettes and Ulster Unionists, and political challenges from an increasingly right-wing Conservative and Unionist Party and an increasingly confident Labor Party, but it was still the dominant political party of its age. It had put the divisions over Irish Home Rule and the Boer War behind it and was implementing a “New” liberalism of welfare reform, resistance to political intimidation, a taxation system based on the ability to pay and the dominance of the representative (if not democratic) element of the constitution – the House of Commons, over the House of Lords and the monarchy. In this respect the book succeeds as a history.

Yet, as with so many histories of the period, it is with the Empire that the study falters. True, it acknowledges that the Empire was never popular with the working class, a fact Sir Charles Lucas, a former colonial civil servant, admitted in 1914 when he wrote that the “working men of England” thought that

the Empire was of no use to them, and that they had no use for the Empire. It might be the luxury of the richer classes, but how, they asked, was the working man of England benefited by the Empire?

But Bogdanor perpetuates the persistent myth that the British Empire was genuinely paternalist and “neither despotic nor arbitrary”. He claims more than once that the empire was not corrupt, whereas recent work by scholars such as Jonathan Saha has confirmed Orwell’s accusation that, at grassroots level, the imperial system did not merely tolerate corruption – it was endemic. If the Empire appeared incorrupt, it was because, as in so many institutions, the senior figures in it chose not to inquire too closely into the systems of control and extortion on which the entire system operated. The inconvenient facts of the brutality of imperial rule, shown by the Indian famines of the 1890s, the massacre of the Tibetans at Chumik Shenko in 1904 and the Zulus at Mome Gorge in 1906, the Amritsar massacre of 1919 and the aerial bombardment of Iraqi villages in the early 1920s should have been mentioned in any balance sheet of Empire, rather than the spurious question of enthusiasm for the Commonwealth among the leaders of the former colonies after the Second World War.

Despite its title, much of the book focuses on the Unionist governments of 1895-1905 and their time in opposition from 1906 to 1914, and Bogdanor acknowledges the unfairness of Empire, the justifications for Irish Nationalism and the “obscene” disparities of wealth and opportunity in Edwardian Britain. It becomes apparent that this is not a study of the survival of a “liberal” Britain at all. It is a study of the survival of a deeply conservative society with a liberal political veneer. On its path to modernity Britain saw senior civil servants, cabinet members and prime ministers almost exclusively recruited from the public schools and Oxbridge colleges – and it still does. It saw the retention of a pre-modern culture of patronage and favors in parliamentary and municipal politics (especially so in the case of the Corporation of the City of London) – and it still does. It saw the retention of wealth by the landed classes, the unaccountable power of the financial markets, the continuing influence of conservative institutions such as the armed forces, the Church of England and the monarchy, and a concentration of media ownership and power in the hands of a few wealthy men – and it still does.

The “modern” Britain that emerges in this book, almost against Vernon Bogdanor’s will, is patrician, backward-looking, divided in its legal, welfare and educational systems on class, racial and gender lines, and more concerned with the needs of vested interests than with those of individual subjects or citizens. The liberal principles of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience and equality before the law, all of which had been codified in the nineteenth century, deliberately did nothing to challenge the structural inequities of Britain and its empire. The politics of 1895 to 1914 was a politics deeply distrustful of concepts of equality, transparency and democracy. If the current “psychological dislocation” among the British establishment and the British people has a historical root, you may find it in the unwitting testimony of this book.

Ian Cawood is an Associate Professor in History at the University of Stirling. He is writing a history of public corruption in nineteenth-century Britain

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