The title of this essay is a reference to the book by George Dangerfield, published in 1935. In that book, ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’, Dangerfield’s thesis was ‘that between the death of Edward and the War there was a considerable hiatus in English history’ and that ‘it was in 1910 that fires long smouldering in the English spirit flared up, so that by the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes.’1 But what exactly is this concept of Liberal England? Although much of the book is spent discussing the Liberal party and parliamentary politics, clearly Dangerfield does not mean that the Liberal Party died in this period. Dangerfield is talking about something far more general, he is suggesting that a certain outlook, a certain set of ideas, a certain England, disappeared because of the events of 1910-14. Unfortunately Dangerfield never makes it clear what he means, the closest he comes is: ‘with his [Brooke’s] death one sees the extinction of Liberal England… . the diminishing vistas of that other England, the England where the Granchester church clock stood at ten to three, where there was Beauty and Certainty and Quiet, and where nothing was real.’ This is beautiful prose, but not only does Dangerfield seem to have overdosed on the rustic idyll, but also to acknowledge that the Liberal England that had supposedly died was not real, it was the construct of hindsight, and a hindsight which knew all about the horrors of the Great War. Dangerfield admits this: ‘All the violence of the pre-war world has vanished [because of rose tinted nostalgia amplified by the horrors of the war], and in its place there glow … . the diminishing vistas of that other England’.2 On any reasonable definition of Liberal England it is clear that Dangerfield’s thesis is both wrong and in its explanation simplistic. I am setting out to explain which Liberal England died and to what extent it died.
But first we must give a reasonable meaning to the concept of ‘Liberal England’. By Liberal England we mean the widespread support for a set of ideas deemed liberal. Importantly, though support for the Liberal party usually meant the support of Liberal ideas, the converse is not necessarily true, since those who support a party other that the Liberals may still hold liberal ideas3. So far our definition is meaningless in that we have not defined liberal ideas; that which will give real meaning to the concept of Liberal England. Unfortunately the meaning of words can change and ideas can change, and being a liberal (holding liberal ideas) today does not mean you support the same things as a liberal of the mid-nineteenth century. Thus we can see that liberal ideas (liberalism) have changed and evolved.
The original set of liberal ideas, or liberalism, were the creation of the dual revolutions which occured at the end of the 18th century: the Industrial revolution and the intellectual revolution known as the Enlightenment. Liberalism was the creed of the middle-classes, and as such was most swiftly adopted in England where the Industrial revolution and the consequent sharp growth of the middle class power and numbers were first felt. Thus though liberalism was the intellectual creation of the Enlightenment -particularly of English writers and philosophers such as Hobbes, Smith, Bentham, Paine, the Mills (father and son), Ricardo- the growth of its support, (the growth of a Classical Liberal England) was due to economic and concomitant social changes beginning in the late 18th century. What is important to us is less an understanding of why Classical Liberalism came to prominence but of what it consisted and why it died, for died it surely did. A.J.P. Taylor goes as far as to suggest that ‘Old-fashioned [classical] British liberalism really ended in 1874’4, and even though this may be slightly exaggerated, classical liberalism was certainly gone by the close of the nineteenth century.
The origins of classical economic theory which was a major pillar of classical liberalism is Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Smith’s basic theme was that the wealth of nations and therefore the wealth and welfare of everybody was best increased by a capitalist system where there was minimal state interference. This assumption of laissez faire as it came to be called, i.e. non-interference of the state in the lives of the individuals of which it consists, is the mainstay of classical liberalism. And although it was initially an economic argument (which provided the main support for Free Trade, the keystone of the Liberal Party’s economic policy right up to its disappearance as a political force in the mid-thirties), it also reinforced the social ideas of freedom which insisted on no or minimal state intervention on the ground that any interference by the state would reduce the individual’s freedom of action which was paramount.5 These ideas grounded as they were in the rationalism of utilitarianism (the greatest good of the greatest number) were perfect for the newly arriving industrial middle-class, since they not only provided a critique of the protectionist closed ancien regime system, but also, by the elevation of freedom to the status of a natural right, provided a defence against those who pointed that the capitalist system did not actually lead to greatest good of greatest number.6 These ideas provided the way forward, the basis for another fundamental idea of both the Enlightenment and classical liberalism: namely Progress. When one considers the ‘world triumph of British arms, commerce, industry and ideas’ that the ‘hundred years which opened with … the publication of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, and closed with the onset of the first great Depression’ saw, it is not surprising that many should ‘mistake a unique moment of success for a permanent condition’7 and think that Progress would go on forever and that Progress was to be had through capitalism and middle-class liberalism.
Britain because of its adoption of a representative system very early on (at least to a limited extent), had mastered by the 1820s and ‘30s ‘the problem of assimilating new classes into the political order’8. This ability saved Britain from revolution. Despite the 1832 Reform Act’s acceptance of the Liberal bourgeois into the political system and the general movement of politics towards Free Trade and other Liberal ideas in the twenty five years up to the year of revolutions (1848), Britain did not see the triumph of liberalism until after the repeal of the corn laws in 1846. Up to 1846 there was still powerful opposition to it, from both the landed interest eager to retain protectionism and from the radicals (for example the Chartists). After 1846 (until the mid 1870s) liberal ideas became basic principles accepted across party division and across the country. This liberalism, supported by the hard fact that it worked (British economic supremacy was unquestionable as witnessed by the Great Exhibition of 1851), and seemingly unassailable was to not last more than a lifetime, undermined by the very ideas which had made it so undeniably right, and its demise was to be quick. ‘In the early 1870s economic expansion and liberalism seemed irresistible. By the end of the decade they were no longer.’9
The foregoing quotation provides at least some of the explanation of classical liberalism’s decline. Its compelling strength rested greatly on the fact that it worked so well. Unfettered competitive private enterprise had made Britain the workshop of the world, yet the faltering of this system with the first Great Depression of the early 1870s to the mid 1890s (or at the least the appearance of faltering) called classical liberalism into question. This hiccup and the growth of overseas competition reducing Britain’s dominance ‘led to a questioning of many articles of faith of the early Victorian years’. Although modern scholarship has shown ‘that much of this concern and lack of confidence was misplaced or exaggerated’, what matters is what people thought was happening rather than what actually was.10 Moreover as other countries industrialised and began to compete with Britain the individualistic capitalism of classical liberalism could no longer survive, ‘The era of liberal triumph had been that of a de facto British industrial monopoly internationally, within which (with some notable exceptions) profits were assured with little difficulty by the competition of small and medium sized enterprises. The post-liberal era was one of international competition between rival industrial economies … . a competition sharpened by the difficulties firms … now discovered, during the period of depression, in making adequate profits.’11
Factors other than the economic contributed to classical liberalism’s decline. The strong religious presence in Victorian politics meant ‘Victorians felt an overpowering need to justify their political and economic activities in moral terms’. In this period (1846- mid 1870s) classical liberalism and its economic doctrines were considered correct not just because they worked but because they were morally right. The classical liberals used this moral standpoint to defend the manifest economic inequalities present in Victorian society. Particularly since the gap between the rich and poor widened, rather than narrowed as Britain became richer.12 ‘The psychological cement of Victorian society [and classical liberalism] was puritanism’13, and thus the greatest good of the greatest number did not mean the alleviation of the poor’s poverty if it in any way interfered with the sacred importance of the individual’s responsibility for his actions. It would in fact be injurious to the poor to give them any form of state assistance. The only ‘true’ way of improvement of the poor’s condition was by allowing them to face the harsh economic reality of the world and thus learn the essential moral quality of thrift. Coupled with the strong Victorian belief in original sin, most notably espoused by Gladstone, which maintained that the state of the world was inevitable and thus should not be interfered with, it is easy to see how the classical liberal belief in the sanctity of the individual and non-interference by the state came about. Yet the danger of justifying a system of ideas on morality was that as morality changed (or the perception of what was acceptable and what was not changed), the system of ideas would become obsolete. This is exactly what happened, from the mid-19th century onwards it became increasingly unacceptable for there to be the kind of poverty which there. Liberalism in this area was also the victim of its own insistence on logic and rationality, from the late 1870s onwards it was obvious that liberalism though supporting nominally the ‘greatest good of the greatest number’ was doing nothing of the kind.14 Significantly it wasn’t so much that these ideas were original but that Gladstone’s brand of general conservatism added to a deeply religious fatalism were no longer a compelling answer. The enfranchisement also taking place (1867 and 1885) further weakened classical liberalism although this was masked electorally by Gladstone’s populism and by a still significantly ‘restricted electorate amenable to the cultural values of non-conformity’. Gladstone ingeniously employed the prevalent religious moralism of the Liberal voter not ‘against the social evils at home’ but ‘on arcane matters in faraway countries’15.
Unfortunately the times were definitely changing, and just as classical liberalism had originally challenged the then existing orthodoxy with a more rational, more ‘right’ set of policies, so it was now being challenged. Despite the presence of Gladstone the Liberal party, which had been in power (with minor exceptions) for the twenty-seven years up to 1874, in the last quarter of the century was only to be in power for only eight. Yet as Gladstone -the epitome of classical liberalism- was on his way out a new liberalism was emerging. In 1891 a group of ‘progressist Liberals’ consisting of Asquith, Haldane, Grey, Buxton and Acland met the Fabians in the hope of forming an alliance. This incident, though not particularly successful, shows the direction in which some of the party and especially the party’s future leaders were moving.16 The last word should go to Taylor: ‘Historic [classical] liberalism was a bourgeois cause, inspired by the advance of laissez faire capitalism and successful in the days of limited suffrage. It lost drive as individual enterprise diminished and offered little which could attract a mass electorate.’17 Classical liberalism had died long before 1910.
Liberalism Into The Twentieth Century
The paradox remaining for the student of liberalism is ‘how … British liberalism came to have its greatest [electoral] success in the early twentieth century, when -on any rational calculation- it should have been dead?’18 Part of the answer to this question lies in the extent to which the Liberal party and the liberalism of 1906-15 had transformed itself from the Gladstonian Liberal party and classical liberalism of the previous half a century. But how was it that if the liberalism had reinvented itself the party supposedly representing it, in retrospect, had disappeared by the mid-1920s.
Significant also, was the change in liberalism from Gladstone’s day. No longer was it a fundamental of liberalism that the state should interfere as little as possible in the lives of the individuals of which it consists, in fact on the contrary the new liberalism, as exemplified by Lloyd George and Churchill, although maintaining much of the economics of classical liberalism had a totally different role for the state. The state was not only there to allow individuals to coexist but also to ensure the -limited- welfare of its inhabitants. This progressive liberalism influenced by the Fabians and others (e.g. C.P. Scott’s circle at the Manchester Guardian, L.T. Hobhouse, J.A. Hobson) was no longer the cause of the bourgeois capitalists but ‘the cause of the left-out millions.’19 Though one should be cautious about the extent of this new liberalism’s presence in the pre-war Liberal party, it is important not to associate too closely liberalism with the Liberal party (see Introduction). Thus the Liberal party’s replacement by Labour during the 1920s as the major ‘other’ party in the British two party electoral system does not necessarily indicate the demise of new liberalism. Rather, since as one commentator points out ‘Labour in many ways took over rather than displaced Liberal ideology’20, and the Labour Party, for example, were just as avid Free Traders as the Liberals, this was the triumph of new liberalism.
At the same time this new liberalism still initially retained, particularly in economic areas, a distinctly classical bent, but even this was to change -the Liberals being the first party to consider and accept Keynes’ ideas. The main problem faced here in expounding any view as to what happened to liberalism is the lack of any definite view as to what liberalism was. This uncertainty is not helped by the fact that the Liberal party to which one might turn for a coherent ideology, was itself fractured. For in parallel to the liberalism explained above there remained -in the Liberal party and in liberalism generally- a liberalism strongly attached to laissez-faire in all its classical historical meaning, which could not countenance the infringements on personal liberty that the first total war would make. Moreover a general classical liberal tradition, above all in economics, went right across the political spectrum. Even when ‘reality had so evidently taken a different turn’ with the onset of the Great Depression, objections to Mosley’s memorandum from the Treasury include the point that ‘a very drastic policy would be necessary in dealing with the rights of private individuals’, and ‘national public works schemes were rejected not just on the grounds of economic theory … but on the ground that they entailed an illegitimate expansion of state power.’21 It was only to be the mass unemployment of the thirties and the Second World War that were to destroy once and for all the last vestiges of classical liberalism. And the late Victorian liberals/socialist who had provided the intellectual attack on classical liberalism and ushered in the new, ‘lived to see many of … [their] ideals realised.’22
Yet this optimism was misplaced. One essential tenet of liberalism at any point had been its adherence to rationalism. ‘Liberalism was a rational doctrine adhered to by rational men’23, but the election of 1945, with its destruction once and for all of any hope of Liberal revival, was a victory not for any rational liberalism but for a narrow class interest. Liberalism and its concomitant Liberal England, as Dangerfield defines it, died not before the First World War, but in the mass unemployment of the thirties and the Second World War, when it, at last, became clear that the classical economics and associated ideas on which liberalism was based were simply not in touch with a modern reality. Pure classical liberalism had lost strength long before but, as shown, many of its ideas survived. It is perhaps ironic that a set of ideas and an England quite so clearly attached to the nineteenth century, and more specifically the Victorian era, should today again be becoming potent (the constant talk of individual responsibility by both parties), realising the hopes of one of the Victorian liberals previously mentioned, who post-1945, thought that the ‘Progressive movement of the future has to be sought either in Labour with a faint Liberal fringe or in a liberalised Conservatism.’24