The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain — the pre-first world war age of anxiety

Crowd of strikers listen to speech outside the Tower of London
Strikers assemble before the Tower of London in 1911 © Alamy Stock Photo

The two decades before the first world war were among the most creative, turbulent and dangerous in Britain’s modern history. It was in these years that the Labour party was formed, the foundations of the welfare state were laid and the campaign for women’s suffrage carried to a climax. Words such as unemployment, feminism and syndicalism entered the political lexicon, while a new kind of state offered protection against sickness, unemployment and old age. An unprecedented wave of strikes saw troops deployed to British cities and warships mobilised. Posters warned that “Socialism is the End of All Things”, while the Daily Mail described London as “a blockaded city, within which civil war . . . is in full swing”.

Above all, this was an age of anxiety, gripped by fears of invasion, racial decline and imperial breakdown. It was a time when the alliances were forged that would carry Britain into the first world war, following the failures of its special military operation in South Africa. The 1909 People’s Budget triggered the last great collision between the two Houses of Parliament, while the Ulster Crisis of 1912-14 saw His Majesty’s Loyal Opposition endorse a paramilitary army. The Conservative Election Guide of 1914 claimed that Britain “stands on the brink of civil war. No method now remains, except armed revolt, by which the country can make its will prevail.”

Readers today might see some familiar patterns. Indeed, for Vernon Bogdanor, a distinguished historian of government and the constitution, these years “heralded a new political agenda which still dominates our politics”. He sets out to bust a series of “commonly accepted myths” about those turbulent pre-1914 years, drawn chiefly from George Dangerfield’s 1935 classic The Strange Death of Liberal England. In the years before the war, wrote Dangerfield, “fires long smouldering in the English spirit suddenly flared up”. By “the end of 1913, Liberal England was reduced to ashes”.

Bogdanor’s theme, by contrast, is Liberal England’s “strange survival”. Applying the breathalyser to Dangerfield’s intoxicating rhetoric, he praises “the resilience and effectiveness of the British political system in the face of unprecedented challenges”. The robustness of institutions, with their “commitment to rational debate and argument, were powerful enough to carry the country through one of the most turbulent periods of her history”.

The Strange Survival of Liberal England is packed with fascinating detail, offering fine portraits of leading politicians and navigating volcanic controversies with care and even-handedness. It is fluently and clearly written, and can be read as a whole or dipped into for specific issues. Bogdanor offers a particularly fine chapter on “How Britain was Governed”, laying out the transformation “from aristocratic rule to mass politics”. He has an eye for a telling quotation, and in the age of Churchill, Lloyd George and Mrs Pankhurst, is never short of material.

Yet the focus of the book is surprisingly narrow. As Bogdanor acknowledges, “the British people hardly appear”. And there is nothing on the intellectual or cultural developments of the time. His focus is squarely on “the men of government”: the “political elite” whose task it was “to resolve the massive problems which they faced”.

That is a problem for a period when all the great questions of politics were ones of popular mobilisation: when women were smashing windows in pursuit of the vote; when Ulstermen were enrolling in a paramilitary army; and trade unions were building a new party. From the imperial culture of the music halls to the influence of commercial advertising on political posters, cultural forces outside parliament were reshaping politics within it. Suffragism, the Labour party and “New Liberalism” were suffused with new religious ideas, while changing racial ideologies remoulded domestic and imperial politics.

Bogdanor leans heavily on parliamentary debates and private political correspondence, a body of material that tends to privilege sober and civilised forms of argument. The case for a “rational” and “liberal” politics becomes harder to sustain outside that world, where racist advertisements announced that “Chinaman no likee eat sick pig. He makee velly good Flee Tlade English bacon”. or warned electors that “every vote for the Liberal is a vote for civil war”. The Conservative leader, Andrew Bonar Law, might not have meant his blood-curdling warnings about civil war but words can have consequences beyond the intentions of those who issue them.

In focusing so heavily on Dangerfield’s 90-year-old text — a work that has largely disappeared from university reading lists — Bogdanor pays little attention to more recent scholarship, focusing on popular politics, political advertising and political culture. In consequence, some of the “myths” against which he positions himself feel like straw men. No historian believes that “all of the deaths” in British concentration camps “were a result of deliberate cruelty”. They do allege that tens of thousands of civilians died in those camps, a charge that Bogdanor himself endorses.

Nonetheless, the challenges Bogdanor chronicles feel strangely vivid, at a time when war, trade relations, industrial action, gender ideology and poverty again dominate our politics. Whether we can respond to them more successfully than our forebears remains to be seen.

The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain: Politics and Power Before the First World War by Vernon Bogdanor Biteback, £35, 912 pages

Robert Saunders is reader in history at Queen Mary University of London

Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café