By John Rossi.

It is rare when an historical study, even when scholarly challenged, continues to dominate an interpretation of events. Churchill’s indictment of appeasement in The Gathering Storm and Richard Hofstadter’s study of the flaws of the progressive idea in America, The Age of Reform, are two that come to mind. Another interesting example of this phenomenon is a book that predates both Churchill and Hofstadter, George Dangerfield’s portrait of the troubles that plagued British society on the eve of World War I, The Strange Death of Liberal England.

The book was the work of a thirty-one year old largely unknown English writer who had taken up residence in America. Dangerfield was the son of a clergyman and had attended Hereford College, Oxford, where he was a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh. In America he wrote for a number of cultural magazines including Commonweal, Nation, and the Saturday Review among others while editing Vanity Fair from 1933 to 1936.

Dangerfield served in the U.S. Army during World War II and afterwards began an academic career. He subsequently produced a number of highly regarded scholarly works dealing with the early national period in American History. Two of them won distinguished awards: The Era of Good Feelings (1952) won the Pulitzer Prize and The Awakening of American Nationalism 1815-1828 (1965) won the Bancroft Prize for the best book in American History. He also returned to one of the themes of The Strange Death of Liberal England, Ireland’s stormy relationship with England: The Damnable Question: A Study in Anglo-Irish Relations (1976). None of them had the sustaining power of his breakthrough study of the last years of peace in England before the cataclysm of 1914.

In 1935 he published his interpretation of the events that led to the demise of what he called “that highly moral, that generous, that dyspeptic, that utterly indefinable organism known as the Liberal party.” Written with amazing self-confidence in a bright, highly impressionistic style that owed a great deal to Lytton Strachey’s indictment of those eminent Victorians General Gordon, Queen Victoria, and Cardinal Manning, the book was hardly reviewed in America and its publisher soon went out of business. A British edition was put out by Constable in 1936 where it received some positive notices but it was largely forgotten until 1961, when Capricorn Books in the United States published an edition; it found a new audience while receiving rave reviews. Nineteen editions later it remains the most popular study of Edwardian England in print and its admirers reads like a Who’s Who of English historical scholarship. 

What makes Dangerfield’s study remarkable is that he wrote at a time when there was virtually no primary material available dealing with England on  the eve of World War I. Using a handful of biographies and autobiographies along with newspaper and magazine material, Dangerfield created a compelling portrait of the crisis that the Liberal party faced between 1910 and 1914. His interpretation has been challenged and widely disputed by scholars of the Edwardian era. P. F. Clarke, dean of Edwardian England historians, noted that all efforts to undermine Dangerfield’s thesis ultimately have failed while the title phrase “retains a hold almost like that of scripture…enshrined in the minds of those readers who doubt the story is actually true.” John Vincent, the leading historian of the history of the Liberal party, describes Dangerfield’s study as a “rare example of a book which has become canonical.” Perhaps the best endorsement of Dangerfield’s impact came from the often-dyspeptic A. J. P. Taylor, who congratulated Dangerfield for showing that vividness and readability in the writing of history “need be no obstacle to truth.”  

Dangerfield’s argument is deceptively simple. Between 1910 and 1914 England underwent a series of critical challenges: from a Conservative party seeking to protect the veto power of the House of Lords, from a wave of violent strikes not seen since the 1880s, from a suffragette movement that turned to violence while seeking the franchise, and, most importantly, from the Irish determined to secure a Home Rule parliament that had been promised for over 20 years. Dangerfield argues that these challenges brought England to the brink of civil war and in the process gradually undermined the Liberal party and the position of moderate reform which it represented. Only the outbreak of World War I saved England from a civil conflict.

Dangerfield argues that while King Edward VII was genuinely popular—he describes him as “comfortably disreputable”—the “mood of pre-war England was sullen, sombre and violent.” George Orwell shared this view in “Such, Such Were the Joys”: “There never was, I suppose, in the history of the world a time when the sheer vulgar fatness of wealth, without any kind of aristocratic elegance to redeem it, was so obtrusive as in those years before 1914.”

While most historians of these years would dispute that grim portrait, it is true that wages were stagnant, prices had risen since the beginning of Edward’s reign, and, most revealingly, in the decade before the outbreak of war two million people left Britain—but most were from Great Britain itself, not Ireland, as had been the case in the past. 

The Liberals had come to power in 1906 with a huge majority over a divided Conservative party worn out after a decade in office—400 seats in Parliament against just 157 Conservatives, one of the largest majorities in Parliamentary history.

The figures proved meaningless as the Conservatives used their majority in the House of Lords to thwart the Liberal agenda. The Conservative defense of the House of Lords was bitter because they recognized that if they lost their veto there was nothing to stop the Liberals from enacting their radical agenda, especially a budget raising income taxes to unprecedented levels and a tax on land value. The dispute over the House of Lords veto, Dangerfield argues, created the conditions and the atmosphere where violence, verbal and physical, embittered the English political scene.

Of the four crises he deals with, Dangerfield sees irrationality in all of them. He is dismissive of the suffragette movement, describing it as filled with “deviant, irrational, creatures…filled with daring ladies with corseted bosoms.” He even implies a lesbian quality and a fantastic tendency to the movement at times. Dangerfield’s portrait of the women’s rebellion has not fared well at the hands of feminist scholars today.

Dangerfield views what he labels The Worker’s Rebellion, a series of violent strikes that peaked in the two years before the war, as more serious than the Conservative defense of the Lords’ veto or the women’s movement demand for the franchise. The Union movement which traditionally behaved responsibly flirted with Syndicalism in Dangerfield’s view, which he finds another assertion of the “instinct against reason” characteristic of the period.

For the Liberal party, the strikes portended trouble. The days of the Lib-Lab, the trade union leader patronized by the Liberal party, were rapidly coming to an end. For all its sympathy at times for the working man and the trade union movement, the Liberal party was still an upper middle class association with a strong belief in the rights of property. In the final analysis, the real victor to emerge from the wave of labor violence was the young Labor party that the working classes came to see as protecting their interest. The Liberal party was outflanked on the left. 

The issue which had the greatest potential for dividing the nation, Dangerfield believed, was the Liberal party’s decision to attempt to enact Home Rule. After two elections in 1910, the Liberal party lost their majority and was dependent on their 84 MPs to stay in office. In effect, this meant that a party which received just 2.5% of the vote held the fate of the Liberal administration. Home Rule, which had been part of the Liberal program for twenty five years, suddenly became a reality. The problem was simple: there was no evidence that any part of Britain, Scotland, Wales, or England supported the notion of Irish self-rule. The Conservatives regarded the Liberal dependence on the Home Rulers as a cynical alliance and now had an issue in which public opinion was strongly on their side. More importantly, the division of Ireland into a largely Protestant North and Catholic South gave a religious dimension to the issue.

Despite efforts to find a solution, religious bigotry and four centuries of British misrule made compromise impossible. Dangerfield is critical of all sides in the matter but saves his special criticism for Sir Edward Carson, leader of the Conservative campaign to stop Home Rule. Carson, he writes, was “a fanatic, and he was particularly a fanatic on the question of the Union between England and Ireland…and he hated Home Rule…as a religious man might hate a moral evil.”

The leader of the Home Rule party, John Redmond, was not cut out for a vicious religious, ideological struggle. Dangerfield characterizes him as “a tame and weary hawk” and no match for the fanaticism of Carson and his Conservative allies. Ireland needed a Parnell, someone to match Carson in his hatred and fanaticism, not a leader like Redmond who, deep down, admired the British Empire and had become cosseted by thirty years in Parliament.

On the eve of World War I, Ulster and Southern Ireland were arming and it appeared at times that an incident could set off a civil war. All efforts to reach a compromise had failed and in July the Cabinet was discussing what to do next when Churchill wrote the Austrian ultimatum to Serbia threatening war. When it was read to the Irish people: “The parishes of Fermanagh and Tyrone faded back into the mists and squalls of Ireland, and a strange light began immediately and by perceptible gradations, to fall and grow upon the map of Europe.” In Dangerfield’s words, “The Irish Civil War had yielded to a greater [one].”

Dangerfield’s portrait of those critical years before World War I is not a full scale scholarly investigation of the dramatic events of the issues that divided England but is rather an imaginative impressionistic portrait of the period, one which academic historians have sharply criticized. And yet it is Dangerfield’s depiction of those years that is remembered. Perhaps it is something as simple and dramatic as Dangerfield’s title that captures the reader’s imagination—the notion that what happened to the Liberal party was indeed its Strange Death.

John Rossi is Professor Emeritus of History at Lasalle University in Philadelphia.

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