The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain: Politics and Power Before the First World War by Vernon Bogdanor - review by Martin Pugh

Martin Pugh

Goodbye to Gladstone

The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain: Politics and Power Before the First World War

By

Biteback 864pp £35
 

In 1935, when Mussolini was dropping chemical bombs on Abyssinia and Stanley Baldwin was winning a second general election for the National Government, George Dangerfield published The Strange Death of Liberal England. He claimed that during the last years before the First World War, British parliamentary institutions and traditions were systematically undermined and the Liberal Party, though in power, was on its way to collapse in the face of the challenges posed by, among other things, the rise of a militant labour movement, the women’s suffrage campaign and burgeoning civil war between unionists and nationalists in Ireland. Remarkably, the book was still being reissued as late as the 1970s.

The explanation for its success is not hard to find. Written by a journalist, it was a lively and readily comprehensible read. All kinds of traditions, social and political, had been superseded as a result of the First World War. It was written in a period in which, all over Europe, liberal parliamentarianism was giving way to fascism on the one hand or Bolshevism on the other. It was commonly assumed across the Continent that authoritarian government represented the future. The Liberal Party, which had returned 399 MPs to Westminster in the 1906 election, by 1935 had only twenty-one MPs.

However, Dangerfield’s book has long been discredited. It was a popular sketch, it read history backwards and it was not based on any primary sources. Modern research has demonstrated that the protest movements of the Edwardian period were not really anti-parliamentary or symptoms of a single malaise. By the

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