In an article in the Nineteenth Century in January 1887, not long after the defeat of the first Home Rule Bill, Gladstone looked back on the lessons of his long career. He drew comfort from,
a silent but more extensive and practical acknowledgement of the great second commandment, of the duties of wealth to poverty, of strength to weakness, of knowledge to ignorance, in a word of man to man. And the sum of the matter seems to be that upon the whole, and in a degree, we who lived fifty, sixty, seventy years back, and are living now, have lived into a gentler time; that the public conscience has grown more tender, as indeed was very needful; and that, in matters of practice, at sight of evils formerly regarded with indifference or even connivance, it now not only winces but rebels.
In this essay I try to re-examine the growth of the public domain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; to suggest possible explanations for its erosion in the final decades of the twentieth century; and to sketch out the rudiments of a public philosophy which might provide the intellectual and cultural underpinning for its renewal in the twenty-first. Gladstone's Nineteenth Century evocation of the 'great second commandment' provides an ideal starting point.
Fifty years ago, Karl Polanyi depicted what he famously described as the 'great transformation' of the nineteenth century as a kind of pendulum, that swung from the harsh laissez-faire capitalism of the start of the century to increasing public regulation later (Polanyi 1957). As he described it, the process was almost automatic. The self-regulating free market of the laissez-faire theorists of the early nineteenth century was a 'utopia'. It logically entailed the commodification of land and labour. This was an impossibility, since in reality land and labour are not commodities like any other. The 'utopia' was thus profoundly