Dangerfield – Strange Death – Reviewed


The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield

Serif 2012 forword by Paul Bew

It is a remarkable testimony to the power of journalism that this book is still in demand but it still sells. Modern Historical research has blown its theory to pieces. The central idea that between 1910 and 1913 Liberal England imploded and “by the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes” (pp15-16) is myth. It is intellectually poor – it is a statement which is never properly defined so that we do not know whether Dangerfield means the Liberal Party or the wider sense of Victorian Liberalism, but neither ended in 1913.

Laisez Faire liberalism was ended by the 1909 People’s Budget, but Asquithian Liberals could live with that. They kept going till 1924 and the Zinoviev Letter. As for the Liberal Party, Trevor Wilson has argued that it was the split of 1916 over the conduct of the war which was decisive. Others would argue that Lloyd George could still hope for a restoration to power till the formation of the National Government in 1931 which split the Liberal Party three ways.

Electorally the decisive moment for the Liberals was clearly the 1924 election, when fear of communism spread by the publication of the letter in the Daily Mail increased the Conservative vote. The letter was probably a fake, as the Labour Party argued that Zinoviev as the head of the Comintern had no interest in ordering the Communist Party to stage a revolution which could not happen in 1924. It was suspicious that the letter was published at a time when it would damage both Labour and the Communists during a general election, but the Labour objections were largely ignored. The letter did not damage Labour, whose vote and number of seats only dropped slightly, but certainly damaged the Liberals. Their seats dropped from 159 to 40 and their vote by over 10% of the total poll. The vote recovered somewhat in 1929 under Lloyd George – but never again has the centre party gained over a hundred seats. This was the moment when the Liberals collapsed as a serious parliamentary party, and it was a decade after the entry into the First World War. The facts are that in 1914 Liberal England was not dead. The demise took place after the extension of the vote in 1918, for many reasons not to do with the Liberals per se.

Paul Bew in his forword deals with none of these objections. He does mention Ross McKibben’s view that it was the war which allowed the unions and thus the Labour Party to grow, but does not mention Trevor Wilson or any of the changes post 1918 which helped Labour gain impetus. The contradiction in political theory that Bew identifies as the saving grace of the book – since the electoral history clearly does not match the 1913 deadline – is particularly ill chosen since it focusses on the political refusal to decree a living wage. (p10-11). This remains the case in 2015. Labour refused to decree a living wage, the minimum wage certainly not being a living wage.

The Liberals not only failed to grasp the nettle, their political inheritance is alive and well as the Living Wage campaign testifies. Indeed, it appears to be the Osborne Conservatives who are most likely to create a Living Wage.

As analysis of either the fortunes of a party, or of a theory, the Dangerfield book is best seen as tribute to the power of words to weave a portrait more like that of Dorian Gray than the real history of a political formation.

Trevor Fisher 11 7 2015

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