Dangerfield, author of ‘Strange death of Liberal England’, sees the years leading to the outbreak of war in 1914 as problematic for the Liberals to say the least. Following their remarkable victory in the 1906 election, the Liberals formed “arguably the most brilliant and constructive government of the twentieth century” (Adelman, ‘Decline of the Liberal Party 1910-1931’). Yet they were plagued with problems throughout the period of 1906 to the outbreak of war.
During the pre war period the Liberals faced many problems and their support was badly damaged in the period, highlighted in the 1910 election results.
The constitutional crisis, challenges from Labour and with it industrial militancy, Ireland, the Suffragette movement, internal difficulties – Asquith’s leadership and problems within the cabinet – were all problems the Liberals had to face.
All these factors contributed to the growing pressure on the shoulders of the Liberal government, Dangerfield takes the view that the Liberal government to all intents and purposes cracked under the pressure and by the end of 1913 all that they had fought so hard to achieve in the latter stages of the nineteenth century had been reduced to ashes and the flame of British Liberalism had been extinguished, never to burn in all its incandescent glory again.
Yet there are many criticisms that are aimed at Dangerfield and his ideas, many believe he overlooked the achievements of the Liberals, the impact of New Liberalism and he made many other misjudgements that make his assessment of the pre war era for the Liberals inaccurate. The problems began early in the Liberal term, as numerous bills the Liberals put forward were rejected by the House of Lords, which were dominated by Conservatives who used the House of Lords as a second strand of opposition to the Liberals.
It was in April 1909 with the rejection of the controversial ‘People’s Budget’ (it was the first finance bill to be rejected in 200 years) that the situation reached its most problematic stage. The Liberals felt that essential bills were not being introduced because of Conservative prejudice, Lloyd George went as far as to say “The House of Lords is not the watchdog of the constitution, it is Mr. Balfour’s poodle”.
The defeat of the Budget forced Asquith to dissolve parliament, in the general elections that ensued in 1910, the Liberals majority was seriously cut into; they went from 400 MP’s elected in 1906 to 272 in the December election of 1910. The Liberals were only able to remain in power with the support of Labour and the Irish Nationalists. Although the statistics suggest the Liberals were damaged severely by the constitutional crisis of 1909-1911, Dangerfield overlooks their successes that resulted from the crisis.
It was a victory as it forced the House of Lords to make considerable concessions and they achieved the reform they wanted in the form of the ‘Parliament Act’; “The outcome of the Lord’s crisis was ultimately a victory for the Liberals” (Adelman, ‘Decline of the Liberal Party 1910-1931’). Following the crisis the Liberals were dependant on Labour and Irish Nationalist support. It was not financially viable for Labour to force another general election as Adelman says “it felt itself impelled under these circumstances to keep the Liberals in office, vote for their bills and accept what crumbs they had to offer”.
In doing this it was clear that the Labour party was being led in a very moderate fashion, which although benefited the Liberals as they needed their support, it created problems for the Liberals as well, in the form of industrial unrest. Workers were becoming increasingly discontented with how they were being represented, and the Labour party made very little effort to work for workers rights, preferring to be the ‘yes men’ to Asquith and the Liberal government. Essentially their lack of ability to deal with the issues that were supposed to lie at the heart of their party created more problems for the Liberals.
The workers were becoming increasingly active in their protest, with the increase in Trade Union membership, and the union between the Social Democratic Party and a number of militant ILP branches of the British Socialist Party, forerunner of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Clearly there had to be something done as more and more strikes were taking place and more militant tactics were being implored. For example in the area of South Wales the Union’s actions were especially aggressive and militant due to a large number of syndicalist supporters.
The ‘Labour unrest’ of 1911-1914 seemed a tribute to Syndicalist ideas. The unrest was marked by disputes on railways, docks and mines culminating in the formation of the ‘Triple Alliance’ of transport workers, miners and railwaymen to coordinate wage demands; evidently matters were being taken into their own hands, and the Liberal wait and see policy was proving ineffective to say the least. The Trade Union challenge raised a large number of issues that the Liberal government failed to deal with, industrial unrest was at its highest ever point.
The Liberals remained largely detached from the workers, as did the Labour Party; they left it to the employees themselves to sort out, explaining the more extreme strategies that appeared. The Liberals were in a very difficult position; they did not want to lose the support of the employers, who gave them financial support, by intervening in disputes. They made no real attempt to prevent strikes; instead they acted very harshly when they did by using the army.
The whole issue of industrial unrest and worker’s troubles alienated the Liberal Party from the workers, allowing Socialist societies to spring up all over the country. In essence I see the Labour challenge as less significant as the problems that arose due to the Liberal’s policy of letting the situation correct itself. The amount of support for Trade Unions and the industrial militancy that plagued the country by the war clearly showed the Liberals were not in control of the situation and can be used as one of the factors to justify Dangerfield’s view that Liberal England was in ashes by the end of 1913.
It could be seen as inevitable that increasing working class consciousness would lead to Labour gaining power, but Dangerfield underestimated the problems facing Labour and also the strength of their challenge as I believe they themselves had lost touch with working class problems; Carl Brand says that by the end of 1914 the “Labour Party was dependant upon the Liberals, dissatisfied with its achievements, unsure of its aims, and apparently in decline”.
In 1912 The Liberal government introduced its Home Rule Bill, partly due to its commitment to the principle of granting Home Rule to Ireland and party due to its dependence on Irish Nationalists. This Bill was ferociously opposed by the Ulster Unionists who Asquith had failed to see how far they would be willing to oppose the Bill and the fact he was unable to see how divisions between Protestants and Catholics had grown. The Ulster Unionists were prepared to go to any lengths to oppose Home Rule, including armed revolts.
The Conservatives were also opposed to the Bill, as they had been in 1883 when Gladstone had put forward a similar Bill. Bonar Law said “I can imagine no length of resistance to which Ulster will go which I shall not be ready to support”. With the two prepared to work coherently against the Liberals, it was clearly at great challenge to the Liberal government, one they duly avoided by adopting a wait and see strategy rather than taking direct action, accentuating the weaknesses of Asquith.
Between the time it was introduced (1912) and when it was to become law (1914) tensions became increasingly flared over the issue. “These years saw a mounting menace in Ireland” (Adelman, ‘Decline of the Liberal Party 1910-1931’); private armies sprang up all over the country. The ‘Curragh Mutiny’ and ‘Larne Gunrunning’ showed the height the problem had reached and by 1914 Ireland was on the brink of a civil war. With the outbreak of war, the Irish constitutional problem was put to one side.
In regards to Dangerfield’s statement the fact that the problem did effectively ‘go away’ in 1914 suggests he got the date wrong and underestimated the impact the war had. Although the constitutional problem clearly highlighted the Liberal weakness in not being able to take control of situations and take direct action from preventing militancy; “It seemed that the whole character of society was changing as passion and violence replaced the rationalism and consensus that were believed to epitomise Liberal England” (Sykes, The Rise and Fall of British Liberalism ‘1776-1988’).
This was not only true of the problems in Ireland, but with industrial turbulence and women’s suffrage as well. The suffragette movement was coming to the forefront of British politics in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, using political means to gain the concessions they desired.
Yet it was the fact that the Liberals seemed to side step the issue that led to the suffragettes using more militant means to hopefully achieve their goals, this led to criticisms of the way women were going about their campaign and proved concerns Asquith had over giving women the vote; “The most significant achievement of the suffragettes was to sabotage any hopes of winning women’s suffrage by 1914” (Burton, respected historian). Yet the situation regarding the suffragettes showed once more how ineffectual the government was, essentially their reaction was one of hypocrisy.
How could they claim to be liberal and drive for real social reform, then refute the emancipation and freedom for women to vote? When the WSPU’s campaign did turn militant and more reactionary (hunger strikes, slashing works of art, cutting telephone wires to name but a few of their conquests) Asquith and the Liberals took a harsh stand, as they did with industrial strikes, this gave people the impression they were not for social reform and personal freedom at all, but rather they were reinforcing the ideas in a patriarchal society of male dominance that they were supposed to be eradicating, rather than anchoring.
Essentially the government were put in an uncompromising situation, either they succumbed to the violent tactics of the suffragettes, that would suggest that violence would be the way forward, or they try and stamp out the issue and are seen as a government who don’t stand for social reform at all. Clearly the mounting pressure on the Liberals, were damaging their support base and the party was in decline, but the war halted the suffragette movement as it called for national unity, this again suggests to me Dangerfield is off the mark as he does not consider the impact the war had on problems facing the Liberals.
Dangerfield clearly bases his statement that Liberal England was reduced to ashes by 1913 on facts and actual problems that did lead to a decline in Liberal support. Yet he does underestimate the impact the Liberal Party had in their term of office, they did introduce numerous Bills of reform, focusing on National Insurance and Pensions, as well as other state run schemes. Unfortunately the nature of the pre war years seem to accentuate the problems and cast a shadow over the achievements, Dangerfield is a clear critique of Liberal England and what it has to offer, his own political standpoint could be questioned?
Personally I see the pre war period as turbulent to say the least, but they remained in government through three elections, passed groundbreaking reforms and were in power when the war began. The impact the war had on British politics was astronomical, it acted as the catalyst for the decline of the Liberals, something Dangerfield appears to ignore in his writings. The war effectively forced the Liberals to implode and split, thus making a future for a Liberal party impossible Suggesting it was the war that extinguished the flame of Liberalism and reduced Liberal England to ashes.
In conclusion the Liberals did not have an easy time in government, but fought their battles valiantly, introducing social reform on the way. In the end the jackhammer blows that came with each ensuing challenge or problem toppled the white knight of Liberalism, yet I believe this was not in 1913, but during the war. The Liberals entered the war shaken, but still ready to fight, sending their trusty stead into the face of adversity, only for it to be defeated by internal problems rather than that of external issues, something I find profoundly ironic given the nature of the external turmoil the Liberals faced in the pre war years.