From the Spectator
n 1935, George Dangerfield published The Strange Death of Liberal England, one of those rare histories that survive long after the author’s death. The elegance and vigour of his description of Edwardian society account for much of his appeal — Dangerfield is as bracing an antidote to the banality of Downton Abbey as you could hope to find. But what stays in readers’ minds is not the style but the brilliance of the argument. Late Victorian liberalism, ‘a various and valuable collection of gold, stocks, Bibles, progressive thoughts and decent inhibitions’, appeared to survive the death of the old queen. The party won a spectacular victory in 1906, and embarked on a worthy programme of free trade and peace abroad and gradual reform at home.
What could go wrong? Just about everything. Even before the slaughter of the first world war, ‘Liberal England was reduced to ashes’. Moderate politicians could not placate the suffragettes or the rising trade unions. They did not know how to cope with the revolt of nationalists and unionists in Ireland or militant conservatism at Westminster. The Liberals rapidly became an irrelevance; a faintly ridiculous party with nothing to say to a modern world dividing between left and right. They lost their majority but clung on in 1910. By 1923, Labour had overtaken them as the main opposition to the Conservatives. By 1951, a party which had ruled a mighty empire was reduced to six seats.
Since that nadir, the Liberals have been on a long march.