How 'strange' was the death of Liberal England


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.

Classical Liberalism and its Death

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

  1. The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield, (Granada 1970), pp. 13-14. [return]
  2. Ibid, pg. 387. McKibbin in The Evolution of the Labour Party 1910-1924, (Oxford University Press 1971) says of Dangerfield’s book that it is ‘a literary confection which does not attempt serious analysis’ (pg. 236). Pelling in Popular Politics and Society in Late Victorian Britain (Macmillan 1968) not only points out errors in Dangerfield but describes Dangerfield’s prose as ‘somewhat dramatic’ (pp. 102-4). Moreover Dangerfield’s work has led to confusion over his meaning. Paul Adelman in The Decline of The Liberal Party 1910-1931 (2nd Edition Longman 1995) interpreted Dangerfield’s thesis as being ‘that during the[se] years [1910-14] the old Liberal values of toleration, moderation, and reason, bruised and battered as they were in 1906, were mercilessly done to death by an unholy alliance of peers, Suffragettes, syndicalists and Unionists, linked only by their hatred of Liberalism and commitment to unreason and extremism’ (pg. 4). While Paul Johnson in the preface to Dangerfield’s book interprets thus: ‘Dangerfield’s theme was the decay of that unique civilization created by the British Liberal movement in the late nineteenth century … this civilisation . . [was] based upon Free Trade, classical scholarship, strict religious observance, public probity and reformist zeal … [and having] reached an apogeee in Gladstone’s first … government; thereafter Liberalism . . entered a period of slow decline.’ (Dangerfield op. cit. pg. 9) Norman Stone in _Europe Transformed 1878-_1919 (Fontana 1985) takes Dangerfield’s book as his starting point and interprets Dangerfield’s thesis as being ‘that British liberalism was under mortal threat from several quarters- especially socialism: its days were over whether war had broken out or not.’ (pg. 10) Not only do these views illustrate the lack of consensus on what liberalism or (L)liberal ideology was but contain many of the fallacies that this essay seeks to destroy. [return]
  3. Note throughout this essay a Liberal with a capital ‘l’ is usually someone who votes Liberal. However the capitalisation of liberalism has no significance and a idea is liberal with a small ‘l’. [return]
  4. From The Boer War To The Cold War: Essays On Twentieth Century Europe, A.J.P. Taylor (Penguin 1995). Essay:_ Lloyd George: Rise and Fall_ (1961), pg. 235. [return]
  5. Skidelsky in Interests & Obsessions (Macmillan 1993) points out ‘the struggle to eliminate the state from the economic field would never have succeeded so completely had it not been conjoined to other anti-statist forces with even deeper roots: the parliamentary struggle against the Crown (monarchy and state were virtually identical in English constituitional history), the struggle for religious liberty (for the non-conformist business classes religious and economic freedom went hand in hand).’ pg. 111. [return]
  6. Rather -it was claimed by its critics e.g. Marx- that the capitalist through the ownership of the means of production ‘exploited the worker’ appropriating ‘in the form of profit the surplus which the worker produced over and above what he received back in wages’ (Hobsbawm’s wording of the essence of Marx’s critique of capitalism, _The Age Of _Revolution (Abacus 1977) pg. 294). [return]
  7. Interests and Obsessions: Historical Essays, Robert Skidelsky (Macmillan 1993). Essay: The Labour Party and Keynes (1972) pp. 108-9. [return]
  8. Skidelsky op. cit. pg. 109. [return]
  9. The Age Of Capital: 1848-1875, E.J. Hobsbawm (Abacus 1977) pg. 17. See also Stone op.cit. pp. 15-18: ‘Great Britain had clearly become a liberal country in the first half of the nineteenth century. It was the success of Great Britain, in contrast to the poverty and the unruliness of the continent, that inspired many continental Europeans to want imitate the British example.’ (pp. 15-16) [return]
  10. The Economic History of Britain Since 1700: Vol.2 1860-1939, Edited Floud & McCloskey, (2nd Edition Cambridge 1994). Essay: Britain 1860-1914: A Survey, Roderick Floud, pg. 17. [return]
  11. The Age Of Capital pg. 355. [return]
  12. Floud & McCloskey, op.cit. pp. 10-13. ‘Rising real incomes towards the end of the century were experienced throughout the population and did something to relieve the extreme deprivation and malnutrition which had characterised earlier periods; but the relative deprivation remained, reinforced by enormously different standards of housing, clothing, feeding and access to medical care.’ (pg. 13) ‘these occupational differentials [between mortality rates] widened during the later nineteenth century’ (pg.10). [return]
  13. Skidelsky op.cit. pg. 113. [return]
  14. The work of Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree in actually making clear the extent of this poverty must also be considered significant. Booth’s Life and Labour of the People in London (1891-1903) and Rowntree’s Poverty: A Study Of Town Life (1901) were both seminal. Moreover Beatrice Webb’s help in Booth’s work indicates the close relation of these sudies to the intellectual developements taking place in late Victorian England, developements which were to shape the future political landscape. (Booth also was the ‘driving power’ behind the formation of the National Committee of Organised Labour on Old Age Pensions, a pressure group which contributed to the creation of old age pensions in 1909. Pelling op. cit. pg. 10-11) [return]
  15. Liberals And Social Democrats, P.F. Clarke (Cambridge 1978), pg. 7. But see pp. 5-61 for details around the crumbling of old conservatism and fatalism of liberalism. Contrast is made between the classical liberal intellectuals like Dicey, Bryce, Stephen, Green and the new guard of Wallas, Shaw, Hobhouse, Hobson, Webbs etc. ‘We were not indifferent to the misfortunes of the poor but looked on them as inevitable, and did not feel the restless anxiety to remove them in defiance of economic laws that burns in the breast of modern youth.’ Dicey reflected in 1913 (The Lights of Liberalism, C. Harvie (1976) quoted in Clarke pg. 6). This ‘restless anxiety’ had been fostered by the new guard. Evidence of Gladstone’s position is also provided. ‘On social questions Gladstone’s position was essentially that of a quietist. The quietist sees the imperfections of the world; he attributes them to original sin; and in that case remedies are in vain, in this world at least. Gladstone was committed to a style of politics which excluded tampering with social and economic questions. The political economy of his youth made him … deeply hostile to what he called ‘construction’.’ (pg. 7) Gladstone himself stated in 1888: ‘I believe in the degeneracy of man, in the Fall, -in sin - in the intensity and virulence of sin… . and sin is the great fact of the world to me’ (Quoted Clarke pg. 7) Clarke elaborates further pp. 8, 16-21. Pelling also notes Gladsone’s opposition to construction (Pelling op.cit. pg. 8) and points out that the Liberals’ proposals of the Newcastle Programme ‘hardly compared favourably with the achievements of the Salisbury government’. Stone discusses affect of increasing electorate op. cit. pp. 51-54 and the entire approx. 100 pages of the book cover this whole period. [return]
  16. Clarke op.cit. pg. 42. [return]
  17. Taylor op.cit. pg. 235. [return]
  18. Ibid. [return]
  19. Churchill. [return]
  20. Adelman op.cit. pg. 70. Also The Challenge of Socialism, H. Pelling (Black 1954) pg. 7. Pelling points out that Socialism was the counter view to the original liberalism. It was derived from the same philosophical basis as classical liberalism, namely the principle of utility. But rather than seeing the greatest good of the greatest number achieved through ‘the individual interest of unregenerate man’ (Pelling pg. 2), Socialism saw it achieved by ‘some principle of organisation more compatible with social solidarity and economic freedom’ (R.H. Tawney in Pelling). The progressive/new liberalism was to a degree socialistic, particularly since Britsih socialism rejected violence as a means of achieving its ends. (Pelling pp. 1-14). [return]
  21. Skidelsky op.cit. pg. 123. [return]
  22. In the obituary of Hammond in The Times (1949) quoted Clarke op.cit. pg. 283. [return]
  23. Matthew, McKibbin & Kay: The franchise factor in the rise of the Labour Party, E.H.R. 1976, pg. 748. [return]
  24. Hammond quoted in Clarke pg. 284. Clarke in his last chapter brilliantly shows how the passionate reformists of an earlier age had so completely changed -or how the changing world had left them behind. In a statement that resonates today, Trevelyan, replying to the gift of the new edition of The Bleak Age (1947) from the Hammonds, said ‘an age that has no culture except American films and Football pools is in some respects bleaker than the one you tell of.’ (Quoted Clarke pg. 284) History will treat Trevelyan well one feels. [return]