The Context of English Literature, 1900-1930

By Michael Bell | Go to book overview

2

The disintegration
of Liberalism, 1895-1931

FRED REID


Introduction

The preceding essay has indicated the difficulty for the liberal tradition of English literature in encountering the social world of the twentieth century. The present essay complements that account by tracing the fortunes of liberalism as a formal political movement in the same period. The history of liberalism in Britain has a central significance, since the movement was pioneered in Britain between 1846 and 1885, and remained of major political significance there longer than in any other country. What precisely happened to English liberalism and when it happened have long been preoccupations of historians. George Dangerfield, writing in America in the 1930s, was confident that liberalism was dead; killed between 1910 and 1914 by the revolts of diehard peers, patriotic Unionists, militant suffragettes and syndicalist workers against its principles of compromise and respectability: 'For 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. From these ashes, a new England seems to have emerged.' 1 Since liberalism was dead before 1914, the British Liberal party was also doomed. Everything that it stood for — 'free trade, a majority in parliament, the ten commandments, and the illusion of progress' 2 — was being challenged and judged inadequate. The First World War simply administered the coup de grâce to an exhausted and bankrupt party.

Many recent historians have refused to accept so pessimistic a view of liberalism or of the pre-1914 Liberal party. Dangerfield, they argue,

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