Saturday, 17 September 2011

Book Review – The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield

George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) is one of those books that has been on my 'must read' list for something like twenty years. It's a well known classic, at least on the left, though more 'well known' when I first heard about it than today. A book with a reputation like this can often disappoint. The myths created in your mind dissipate when you finally get round to opening the volume. That is, when the historical turmoil that made it essential reading have long since passed. Fortunately this book did not disappoint.

We are living in times when the subject of this book is very apt; more apt than when I purchased this volume; a whole £2.95. There seems to be a significant parallel between the events described and those of today. In both cases liberal values are threatened as society tumbles into crisis – both political and economic. Today's British ConDem coalition government only proves that when it comes to political practice, what politicians actually do when in office is nothing remotely like the values they espouse when trying to gain election.

The whole book is filled with a brilliant mixture of nostalgia and cynicism for an age that was dying. A more establishment historian would have concentrated on the nostalgia and produced a phony tomb detailing parliamentary debates and the exultant deeds of so called great men. He/she would have missed the social context and the real forces at work shaping those ideas. And above all missed the deep hypocrisy of the establishment figures involved. A more socialist writer then the liberal Dangerfield would have concentrated more on the cynicism. While this alternative may have been factually truer with Dangerfield the cynicism is all the more biting coming from a believer. (Just like some of the most vengeful critiques of religion come from those once hoodwinked into believing.)

The world described is a bit like seeing some land you once played on as a child. You remember it as green sunny fields, wild hedges and hidden paths. You and your friends once roamed all over them and played through endless summers. For sure the farmer was malicious soul who, if he caught you, was vindictive and angry. His farm, in reality, was decrepit and uneconomic. Looking back you may even understand how this partly explains his attitude. The farmer long sold out and the muddy fields have become a monochrome housing estate full of uniform little houses. You know it makes sense and have even brought one of these bland little houses yourself. All on a mortgage you have difficulty keeping up with. Over the years you have grown to love the house and feel safe there. Still somewhere at the back of your mind is an unspoken nostalgia for that romantic past. And even more deeply hidden is a regret that your own children will never be able to play on those same fields. Sadly, they are gone forever, never to return.

Even today establishment historians see the world governed by great men. In this view ideas spring forth in these great men's heads fully formed and with zero social context. All that is required is for these great men to pull the leavers of government and society evolves for the benefit of all. What conflict there is springs from the debates over the good society within this small group. So all the establishment historian need do is concentrate of this small arena. Thus simplifying the task for his simplistic mind. History becomes: boring parliamentary debates, tedious cabinet meetings, and conversations among the establishment. A Prime Minister has a shit and it's jotted down in the narrative; with a sycophantic description of colour, size, shape and perfume. The lives of ordinary people, and the occasional riot or rebellion, is best forgotten; like a lower class intruder at a garden party.

Is it any wonder that the discerning reader vomits at the prospect of reading such histories.

Dangerfield was one of a small number of historians who destroyed this narrow view. He shows that what often passes for enlightened administration is more often naked self interest. Sometimes it is not even self interest as these 'great men' are often buffoons who little recognise their own self interest. Much preferring to believe their own distorted propaganda. Propaganda that may have had some relevance previously but has long since passed its sell by date. For the establishment historian the world consists of little more than social chitchat among the 'haves'. Conveniently it ignores the vast majority.

This book describes three great rebellions in the years before the First World War. These rebellions where by three distinct social groups being an establishment rebellion, a middle class rebellion and a workers rebellion. The issue for the establishment rebellion, or at least the more reactionary sections of the establishment, in other words the Tories, was against Irish Independence. That for of middle class rebellion was the franchise and woman's votes. And that for the workers' rebellion was Trade Unionism and the rise of the Labour Party.

Liberal governments had long contemplated some kind of independence for Ireland; even if such independence was so hedged about with qualifications and restrictions that the result would be largely cosmetic. Limited as it was it was still too much for the Tory right and their fellow Neanderthals in the upper echelons of the army; both of whom encouraged the protestant Orange Unionists in the north. The story is an amazing one to recall the next time you hear establishment politicians spouting law and order; law and order is for one side of the class divide only. This rebellion included open army disaffection, gun running to Orange volunteers, and a complete disregard for parliamentary procedure. Why all this when the reforms were so modest? Other than a Tory prejudice spinning out of control; and that they could due to the governments weakness.

Electoral reform was long overdue and the major anomaly was woman being excluded from the franchise. We shall always have the image of middle class women smashing windows, burning post boxes, disrupting meetings, committing arson, and even planting small bombs. This all inevitably brought about state repression. Even then they fought back with hunger strikes and the state had to play games and invent the law to avoid inflaming public opinion. You cannot help but admire the tenacity of these protesters. Tensions within the movement appeared when reform was demanded by working class women and threatened to explode beyond the narrow issue of the franchise.

Today's mainstream historian largely ignores the industrial turmoil preceding the First Word War – like some reprobate relative it's best forgotten. However syndicalist ideas were a heady mixture and coincided with the more prosaic desire to build the unions. Liberal leaders flitted from dispute to dispute – in the mines, on the docks, on the railways, and sometime in a whole town that had erupted – trying to quell the unrest; posing as impartial but always with the desire of a speedy return to work. Social reform, could be countenanced, so long as it was limited; but paying the working person a living wage was out of the question, that would involve interfering with the sanctity of the labour market and the contract between employer and employee. In fact the social reforms of the period, no matter how necessary, could be seen as an attempt to head off the industrial unrest; and one that failed. This was also the era in which the Labour Party was formed. This, after the First World War, would be the force that replaced the Liberal Party as an electoral contender; though Dangerfield is a little light on discussing this particular question.

By 1914 the liberal government had all but capitulated on two of the three fronts it was fighting on. All that was left were squabbles over the spoils; and possibly Asquith's duplicity – you should never underestimate his ability to extract procrastination from the jaws of defeat. Ireland was to be independent; the only question was how much of its northern soul was to be ripped out. Votes for women had effectively been conceded though there was still the question of legislative timing. On the workers rebellion all seemed quiet; though beneath the surface there were rumblings; and a Triple Alliance between the major unions looked foreboding – at least for the government. And then what happened? Well nothing on the expected terrain. What happened was the First World War and all these rebellions were placed on hold; to be resolved later.

There are a couple of problems with Dangerfield's account of the First World War or at least its origins. Firstly, it springs from nowhere; it comes across as a sort of European problem that thrust itself on an unsuspecting liberalism. Secondly there is no discussion of empire (apart, obviously, the case of Ireland); the war was a feud over whom controlled the British Empire; and without understanding imperialism you really cannot grasp the way this issue affected the entire political arena. Both these subjects, you could argue, are really for other books; and you would be right, a complete discussion would make this book totally unwieldy; but some account or summary really is needed; its lack distorts our understanding.

This book proves, albeit unintentionally, liberal journalists, politicians and academics are like a cluster of iridescent flies spinning around their own lies and deceits. Their metallic plumage appears like sunlight reflected off an oil slick. There they are feeding on a sloppy dog turd freshly dropped from their masters in the establishment. If caught out within their own web of lies they flurry away in a mad panic only to return when they believe no one is around. Once the flies have gorged themselves stupid they attempt to redeem their purpose in life: whence they lay their eggs on the rotting corpse of society. Abandoning their responsibility in the hope it will feed well and perpetuate its terrible cycle. Finally, to belabour the metaphor to the point of stating the obvious: Liberalism is the sloppy turd.

Reading this book is very suggestive and many aspects of it could be incorporated into a contemporary novel. I just love the cynical portraits of many of the politicians. They are so full of lovely acid and bitterness; brilliant. Form a novelist's point of view they are not quite complete. There needs to be a little more about each characters dress, personality, mannerisms and history to make them complete novelistic characters. Still, as part of such a character Dangerfield has something to learn from – and indeed copy.

Also Dangerfield has such a good eye for the historical drama of events. Looking at this from a novelist's point of view this would need to be extended – brilliant as Dangerfield's descriptions are. The novelist would need to add more dialogue, explore the characters psychology a bit more and add more telling details. Not to force the reader to a particular point of view but to give the reader the information they need to create their own story. To do all this while maintaining Dangerfield's grand sweep of events. At least a novelist would not be constrained by mere facts. Again something to learn from, copy and expand.

For myself I want to attack Liberalism and those who personify it so harshly that at first you think 'that's fun'. Then you think 'that must hurt'. Then 'that's going to far'. And sometimes you even begin to feel sorry for the poor bastards. But above all you think that they deserve every hateful thing that gets said about them. They deserve it for all the misery they have caused in this world. Because, at the end of the day, when judged by what they actually do, liberals are just hypocritical Tories.

For Paul Foot's review of George Dangerfield's The Strange Death of Liberal England (1935) see: Paul Foot - The triple whammy (Socialist Review, No.211, September 1997, p.26).

The final section of this book uses the example of Rupert Brook and the publication of Georgian Poetry 1911-1912 to demonstrate the changed landscape the First World War engendered. So it seems appropriate to end this review with a quotation from this work. It's from one of the more minor poets mentioned, but not quoted, by Dangerfield. And reading more into the poem than possibly it merits; geraniums could symbolise liberalism and the geraniums inevitable demise symbolise the oncoming war.


Stuck in a bottle on the window-sill,
In the cold gaslight burning gaily red
Against the luminous blue of London night,
These flowers are mine: while somewhere out of sight
In some black-throated alley's stench and heat,
Oblivious of the racket of the street,
A poor old weary woman lies in bed.

Broken with lust and drink, blear-eyed and ill,
Her battered bonnet nodding on her head,
From a dark arch she clutched my sleeve and said:
'I've sold no bunch to-day, nor touched a bite …
Son, buy six-pennorth; and 't will mean a bed.'

So blazing gaily red
Against the luminous deeps
Of starless London night,
They burn for my delight:
While somewhere, snug in bed,
A worn old woman sleeps.

And yet to-morrow will these blooms be dead
With all their lively beauty; and to-morrow
May end the light lusts and the heavy sorrow
Of that old body with the nodding head.
The last oath muttered, the last pint drained deep,
She'll sink, as Cleopatra sank, to sleep;
Nor need to barter blossoms for a bed.


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