George Dangerfield’s beautifully written book, originally published in 1935, explains how, in the four years leading up to World War I, Britain’s ruling Liberal Party was gradually engulfed by three crises, or rebellions. Dangerfield analyzes the movements for labor rights and women’s suffrage as they played out against a backdrop of Tory and Ulster Unionist insurrection over the Irish question. “It was in 1910 that fires long smouldering in the English spirit suddenly flared up, so that by the end of 1913 Liberal England was reduced to ashes,” he writes. “The War hastened everything—in politics, in economics, in behaviour—but it started nothing.” Dangerfield tells this vertiginous history in sparkling prose and with a surprising amount of wit and humor. His book’s continued pertinence lies in the question around which it is structured: What happens when an elected government can no longer address the demands of its electors?
The Liberal Party’s roots lay in the demise of the Whigs, whose support for the Reform Act of 1832—which led to an expansion of the franchise, and a burgeoning middle class—ended up dooming the party. The Liberals who emerged, most notably under Gladstone, also took up the cause of electoral reform and land reform, and achieved some success in both areas. “Whatever his political convictions may have been, the Englishman of the ‘70s and ‘80s was something of a Liberal at heart,” Dangerfield writes of a sensibility that was famously captured and embodied by Dickens. “He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in reform. He was strongly in favour of peace—that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance and, if possible, in the name of God.” It was this Liberalism which would be tested in the first decades of the twentieth century.
Just as Upton Sinclair’s investigation, in 1906, of working conditions in the United States had a profound impact on what historians like to call “American consciousness,” British muckraking focused attention on the abysmal state of the United Kingdom’s laborers. And with the unions now under the sway of syndicalism, striking workers erupted in England, Wales, and Ireland. Dangerfield is very good at explaining that the cause went beyond wages: “They were striking about money. (A strike about money is not at all the same as a strike about wages: for while a strike about wages demands either a definite rise or the restoration of a definite cut, a strike about money comes from a sense of injustice. It is not specific, but incoherent and ominous).” He adds: “The workers did not want to be safe any more; they wanted to live, to take chances, to throw caution to the winds: they had been repressed too long. And so the deepest impulse in the great strike movement of 1910-14 was an unconscious one, an enormous energy pressing up from the depths of the soul.”
The Liberals, under Prime Minister Asquith and Lloyd George, took a number of steps to combat the unrest, but their meliorist measures disappointed all sides. (“Mr. Lloyd George was a friend of the people,” Dangerfield observes about the cabinet minister who recklessly threw himself into labor negotiations. “That was still being said, and by nobody with more conviction than Mr. Lloyd George himself.”) While a Conservative government might have avoided the issue altogether, or simply sided with capital, the Liberals proved that government could indeed act, but not decisively. Dangerfield argues that the weakness of the government was about more than its leaders—that the creed of Liberalism was also to blame. “It is a profoundly conscience-stricken state of mind…The poor, it says, are always with us, and something must certainly be done for them: not too much, of course, that would never do; but something. The poor might reasonably be expected to have their own opinions about this; and, indeed, in certain periods of the Victorian era they gave vent to these opinions in a most disconcerting manner.” Or as Algernon asks in The Importance of Being Earnest, “Really, if the lower orders don’t set us a good example, what on earth is the use of them?”
Meanwhile, at a time when a formidable woman could, in Dangerfield’s wry formulation, be “suspected…of having an independent mind,” the rising suffragette movement was becoming increasingly extreme in its methods. It resorted to arson and milder forms of terrorism, and the resulting incarcerations led to hunger strikes. Dangerfield again makes clear that the motivating factors of the mostly female campaigners concerned more than tangible victories: women were disgusted that an increasingly liberated society nonetheless kept them chained to domestic duties and to their husbands. For an unmarried woman, Dangerfield notes, the problem was distinct, if related: “Everything was denied her. Education, business, love—all were impossible…When a husband is a woman’s career, the woman without a husband is as good as dead…Such are the results of living in a world of men.”
Dangerfield’s description of the parliamentary debate over suffrage—a debate in which one MP was accused of never having gotten over “the indignity of having been born of a woman”—is very lively. “Since Women’s Suffrage was not a party question, the honour of the whole House seemed to be involved,” he writes. “Some members maintained that the [hunger-striking women] should be left to die; Lord Robert Cecil thought that deportation might answer: only Mr. Keir Hardie suggested, as a logical solution, that women should be given the vote.” Asquith and Lloyd George talked up the issue, and made feints in the direction of pushing through a suffrage bill. In the end, the Liberals double-crossed the suffragettes, leaving them even angrier.
The third rebellion, and the one that hangs over every page of the book, was the one in Ulster. A clash over limiting the House of Lords’s power led to two sets of elections in 1910, and a much-reduced Liberal plurality; the party was now dependent on the votes of Irish Nationalists. The Liberals had agreed to push a Home Rule bill through (something which Gladstone had failed to do), and this caused an extreme reaction from Ulster Unionist leaders and their politically wounded Tory allies. (“The Conservatives were drifting out of popularity like a swimmer caught in the undertow,” Dangerfield writes). The Unionists were led by the notorious Edward Carson (already famous for successfully cross-examining Oscar Wilde), and they were fanatically intent on ensuring that the Protestant areas of Northern Ireland maintained allegiance to the King, and did not fall under the control of the Catholic south.
Dangerfield’s description of Bonar Law, the new Tory leader, is masterful: “His face was sad, his forehead crumpled; he had an unfortunate habit of saying the wrong thing in debate. He was absolutely honest, and he was excessively Tory in the matter of having no political imagination whatsoever: when attacked by men more subtle in dialectics than himself, he generally took refuge in a remarkably unpleasing rudeness.” Rudeness, however, began to border on the treasonous. Of the possibility that the government would use the military to enforce Home Rule in Ulster, Law remarked that “Ministers who gave that order would run a greater risk of being lynched in London than the Loyalists of Ulster would run of being shot in Belfast.” With top Conservatives calling on the army not to enforce acts of parliament, the army decided to offer its men the chance to resign rather than follow the prime minister’s orders; even worse, Unionists landed thousands of (German) weapons on the Irish coast. In London the quaking government reinstated the offending soldiers, and then ignored the arms cache. It was no surprise that all this dithering led to increasing militancy from frustrated Irish nationalists who were already furious that the Liberals were moving slowly on Home Rule. The pattern, Dangerfield observes, was one of “Tory violence and Liberal weakness.”
Home Rule finally passed, but was suspended before taking effect on account of the war. Asquith’s attempt to avoid civil war by exempting certain counties from the bill foreshadowed what would become the British government’s favorite fallback measure: partition. As for the other challenges it faced, the government did have some notable successes in fashioning the outlines of a welfare state, and curbing the Lords, but it is no surprise that it was the Labour Party which emerged as the Conservatives' main opposition after the war, and it was the post-World War II Labour government that was substantially responsible for fleshing out the welfare state. As for Britain’s women, most of those over thirty got the vote in 1918; universal suffrage did not arrive until a decade later.
The Party never recovered from this record, despite the fact that Asquith and Lloyd George led wartime governments in the ensuing years. With so many currents pushing in every direction, it is no surprise that the cabinet made mistakes. But Asquith and his colleagues did not just anger various segments of the population. More largely, and more disastrously, the Liberals proved incapable of addressing major problems with any sort of force or resolve. They not only misjudged the electorate's mood; they also lost the people's respect. Such foundational failure can have consequences that extend beyond a single election. (Ironically, it was the Labour Party of the 1960s and 1970s that seemed incapable of learning this cautionary lesson, thus paving the way for Thatcherism).
In describing and evaluating the Liberal legacy, and the revolutionary movements of the period, Dangerfield himself seems to be wrestling with a question that has long bedeviled liberalism (as opposed to Liberalism): How far should one go in pursuing what he or she believes to be a noble cause? Dangerfield is extremely critical of the methods used by the suffragettes, for example, and he detects that they derived a “positively unhealthy pleasure,” from their quest. He even accuses many of them of consciously seeking martyrdom, even though the martyr demands that the “end shall be made as bitter as possible.” Still, he answers the question in a way that is both mature and humane:
For the revolution was on its way, and the way it took was the way of all revolutions. Its end was a valuable one—the solidarity of women, the recovery of their proper place in the world; its means were violent and dubious…The Georgian suffragette was not personally attractive, or noble, or clairvoyante. People who make history very seldom are. Providence has bestowed upon them an instinctive response to the unrecognized needs of the human soul, and though this response is often wry and more often ridiculous, life could scarcely progress without it.
And he adds: “Their methods were bad and mistaken; but their ultimate motives shine, as a lamp shines through a fog. And, before they are subjected to the unkindly processes of narrative, one would like to pause here and do them honour.”
This extraordinary book—it makes one bitterly nostalgic about the days when political analysis and literary style were not mortal enemies—closes with a lovely chapter on Rupert Brooke, the British poet who died in 1915. Dangerfield seems to be saying that Brooke’s pre-war poetry was representative of an England that was permanently lost after the carnage in Europe. About that England he falls into rhapsody: “But what an England!—the rural England of Shakespeare and Milton and Wordsworth and Hopkins, gone very soft at the heart…an England where passion perspires roses, and the abandoned heart slowly freezes into the sweet complacency of an ice cream; where it is almost always either spring or autumn, or exactly midsummer.” (In an eerie passage about the English people’s attitude to Germany in the years before 1914, Dangerfield states that “Germany was about as real to them as Japan is real today  to the Eastern seaboard of the United States.”)
Dangerfield mentions the “terrible slaughter” of the war, and rather offhandedly adds that the world “seems about to endure” it again. This was the only premonition I could find in the book, but his description of Brooke’s poetry reminded me of the final passage of Homage to Catalonia:
And then England…Earthquakes in Japan, famines in China, revolutions in Mexico? Don't worry, the milk will be on the doorstep tomorrow morning, the New Statesman will come out on Friday… Down here it was still the England I had known in my childhood: the railway-cuttings smothered in wild flowers, the deep meadows where the great shining horses browse and meditate, the slow-moving streams bordered by willows, the green bosoms of the elms, the larkspurs in the cottage gardens…
Dangerfield was arguing that this England had disappeared in 1914; and twenty-four years later, Orwell said that only the “roar of bombs” could awaken it from a slumbering attitude toward European fascism. Liberal England might have died in 1914, but England survived two world wars, and did so while becoming much more liberal. Even if the European killing fields make Dangerfield’s concluding sentimentality seems not altogether misplaced, his book’s achievement has nothing to do with its elegiac mode. This lively book leaves the reader with lasting gratitude for what tough-minded, hard-boiled history can discover, and teach.
Isaac Chotiner is executive editor of The Book.