Friday, 24 January 2014

The Strange Death of Liberal England

The Strange Death of Liberal England

This review was originally written on August 7th 2000 and further edited on March 1st 2004.

I have just finished ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’ by George Dangerfield, published by Constable in 1936. I had this book on loan from Paddy Lynch who had a very high opinion of it, particularly because of the author’s views about Anglo-Irish relations before the Great War. Dangerfield has a rather florid style but his book, which refers entirely to the period 1910 to the commencement of the Great War in August 1914, is of particular interest for three reasons.

He deals in detail with the suffragette movement which he describes as the women’s rebellion. This movement was inspired by the widow of a Lancashire barrister. Her name was Emmeline Pankhurst. She was joined in her campaign by her two daughters, Sylvia and Christabel. The suffragettes were involved in an extraordinarily wide and violent movement up to 1914, creating major problems for the then Liberal Government led by Asquith.

The second theme of the book was the increasing unionisation of the workers and the widespread and numerous strikes which took place in Britain during these four years. A prominent part in encouraging the strikes was played by James Larkin and James Connolly.

The third and perhaps the most important theme of the book deals with Irish nationalism, and the conflict between the North of Ireland and the South, and what appeared to be the inevitability of civil war because of the intransigence of the Northern Loyalists, supported as they were by Bonar Law and other Tory leaders, and encouraged as they were by the refusal of the British Army to intervene in the disturbances in the North. The book brings out the gross weakness of Asquith and the impotence of the Liberal Party in furthering the Home Rule legislation in the face of Tory and Loyalist resistance and the insubordination of the army leaders.

One is left with the impression from reading this book that Britain was facing possible civil war and certainly a serious threat to its parliamentary system, largely because of the Irish question but also because of the suffragette movement and the deteriorating labour situation, particularly in the areas of the mines, transport and the ports. It is quite clear from the activities of the Unionists in the North that there was little hope of reconciling the North and South on the issue of Home Rule, and that partition was inevitable if the Nationalist Irish leaders could be induced to accept such a solution.  Partition might have been accepted by the South if the two counties of Tyrone and Fermanagh, with their predominant Catholic populations, had not been included in the demands of the Northern leaders. Such a solution might have been less destructive to the long-term outlook of a united Ireland but the Unionists were unwilling to have their territory reduced to four counties and could rely on the Tories to support their claim to the larger area.

Dangerfield was a prolific writer. He was born in Berkshire but he eventually emigrated to America where he became a naturalised citizen. The book is certainly most interesting and revealing ,  but may not have been as popular in Europe as in the United States because of his critical attitude to the Establishment in Britain and particularly to the Tory Party. He was of the opinion that the refusal of some of the Tory leaders to accept the decision of Parliament on the Home Rule issue was little short of treason.

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