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A massive and magnificent book: Lord Wallace reviews 'The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain'

Winston Churchill walking across Parliament Square with David Lloyd George | Alamy

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

4 min read

Though perhaps an overlong account, Vernon Bogdanor has delivered a refreshing take on Liberal history

This is a massive and magnificent book – a history of British politics from 1895 to 1914 – a period which the author describes as the transition “from one political system to another, from aristocratic rule to mass politics”. In opposition to the many historians of British decline including George Dangerfield’s classic 1935 book, The Strange Death of Liberal England, it argues that the Liberal government of 1906 to 1914 tackled, relatively successfully, a “new political agenda” of domestic reforms markedly different from the imperial concerns of Lord Salisbury 10 years earlier that Conservative and Labour governments have grappled with throughout the 20th century.

His argument is painstakingly developed through a lengthy discussion of the nature of the British constitution in the 1890s and the record of Unionist government under Salisbury and fellow Conservative prime minister Arthur Balfour. Readers will have passed page 400 before they reach the formation of the Liberal government in 1906. On the way they will have met many wonderful comments and anecdotes, and occasional comparisons with contemporary politics. 

Most bishops took party whips in the late Victorian House of Lords. “The Conservative Party was in fact more statist at the end of the 19th century than it was to be at the end of the 20th,” the author writes, earlier stating that “many rhetorical flourishes around the idea of the racial unity of the Anglo-Saxons, and its civilising mission, particularly by Chamberlain” provided “ideological cover for British accommodation to the United States”.

Readers will have passed page 400 before they reach the formation of the Liberal government in 1906

The core of the book emphasises the Liberal government’s remarkable record of social reforms between 1906 and 10, and the reform of taxation set in train to pay for them. Winston Churchill is credited as strongly as David Lloyd George for pushing these reforms. The constitutional crisis with the Lords is depicted as a clear victory for popular democracy, after which national insurance was successfully introduced and changes in land taxation were planned. The challenges which Dangerfield had identified as defeating this Liberal surge – the remaining powers of the Lords and the land-owning classes, the rise of Labour as representing the working classes, suffragette militancy, and the problem of Ireland – could all, he argues, have been politically resolved if war had not broken out in 1914.

This is a refreshing alternative version of history to that offered by Simon Heffer, Niall Ferguson and others, in recent years. It’s plausible that Labour and the Liberals could have continued to cooperate as components of a social democrat coalition, and that a move to full adult suffrage could have accommodated votes for women. But his argument that Conservative Unionists in Parliament would have stepped back from supporting outright rebellion in Ireland is less persuasive; the situation there was almost beyond control when continental war intervened. 

The Conservatives, in the Lords, in the City and in the country, were far from beaten. In 1911, he notes, the Unionists defensively unveiled proposals for Lords reform, for a House of 350 members, partly appointed and partly elected on a regional basis by the single transferrable vote system. Yet 110 years-later, the Lords still contains three  active dukes and more than 90 other hereditary peers. He praises the Liberal commitment to education for all, and their encouragement for working men entering Parliament. Yet two of our most recent male prime ministers were educated at Eton, and the third was head boy at Winchester. One might almost say that it is the astonishing survival of Conservative Britain which is the most remarkable legacy of the 20th century.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat peer

The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain: Politics and Power Before the First World War
By: Vernon Bogdanor
Publisher: Biteback

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