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May 01, 2011

The Strange Death of Liberal England [Truman North]

Such a thing as a major political party does not simply cease to exist, even in gloomy times. A rare confluence of events, personalities, and policy challenges must come together to topple such a self-perpetuating machine as a major political party. Such situations cannot be foreseen and will inevitably strike when the players involved are those least capable of preventing it. It happened to the Liberal Party in England in the second decade of the twentieth century. It may happen to the Democratic Party here in America sooner than you think.

In George Dangerfield’s beautiful and quintessentially English historical monograph, The Strange Death of Liberal England, the devilish opposition of Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law and the feckless passivity of Prime Minister H.H. Asquith; the mine-craft radical, opportunistic rabble-rousing of David Lloyd George and the idealistic naivety of Sir Edward Carson and his vision of a religiously-divided Ireland; the wide-eyed political inexperience of King George V and the worldly, violent militancy of the Pankhurst women, split open the seams in the Liberal coalition in turns by chance and by design.

The Parliament Act of 1911

Liberal majorities in the Commons were strong and regular throughout the years 1890-1910. But legislation passed by the Commons was oftentimes held up and vetoed by the strongly Conservative House of Lords, a static situation which became increasingly perilous as the growing welfare state and expense of the empire strained the Exchequer to its limits. Therefore, the Parliament Act of 1911 was drafted to effectively nullify the veto power of the Lords. At the same time, the Money Bill was drafted with huge tax increases on the rich and landed gentry in order to provide the revenue necessary to perpetuate the current, relatively expansive (for the time) government.

Since the Lords obviously wouldn’t agree to increased wealth redistribution at their own (and their social class’) expense, the PM, Lord Asquith met with the aged King George V, and asked him to create a large number of Liberal life lords to ensure that the dire budget situation would get through the Lords. It’s unclear whether George V would have created these lords, but the credible threat was enough to get the Lords to back down. This was to be Lord Asquith’s master-stroke of politicking but also his ultimate downfall.

Lord Asquith reminds me of Harry Reid: impassive, ministerial, and without a complete grasp of how the optics and outcomes of his current actions may open him up to equally-bold counterstrokes by energized and angry opposition. (Or, more like the late Claiborne Pell, if you remember him.)

The Lords, largely Conservative, eventually agreed to the Parliament Act rather than see their august assemblage diluted to a ridiculous degree. Their veto power gone, the Lords became an august assemblage of hounds without any teeth, a situation which persists to this day.

To the Tories in the Commons, this meant war. The old rules of gentile collegiality were well and truly dead. Amending the shape of the Government and destroying the Tory advantage in the upper chamber was a huge victory for the Liberals, but it opened the door for all kinds of low and dirty tricks to be used by the King’s loyal opposition to get what they wanted—the dissolution of the Liberal government and eventual control of Commons; perhaps to put right what had been done to the House of Lords, perhaps to invalidate more of the Liberal agenda, but perhaps for the base ambition of personal political power.

I can’t help but notice that this is similar to recent Democratic calls to limit or eliminate the filibuster, especially during the last Congress. More generally, it reminds me of the delegation of authority from Congress to the Executive here in in the U.S. Without going into it at length, the executive was envisioned to be a fairly junior member of the Executive-Congressional-Judicial triumvirate. Only after about 1860 did the president emerge as a regular force in domestic policy; only during the Wilson administration did the Executive overtake the Congress in primacy. Removal of checks and balances makes for a nimbler legislature and government, but it also prevents factions from stopping what can be dangerous new laws from being enacted.

The Ulster Unionists

Most Northern Irish Protestants were transplanted Scots with their own culture and social identity, separate from the indigenous Irish. As both the North and Ireland proper are subjects to the Crown, it mattered little whether one cracks his egg on the round end or the pointy one. But once Lords would no longer be able to thwart the Liberal passage of a Home Rule bill (a measure to grant independence to Ireland and a long-standing plank in the Liberal platform,) the particulars of what Ireland was to become and who would rule it became quite real and concrete questions with which to wrestle.

Sir Edward Carson (later Baron Carson) was an Orangeist who disliked many of the particulars of Orange culture, viewing them as backwards and vainglorious people by and large. But he had even less love for the Catholics. At least as a subject to George V, Ulster was ruled by a Protestant monarch and not a Catholic parliament. While he was against Home Rule as late as 1912, he was equally strident in his belief that Ulster was to be independent, should Home Rule come. On September 28, 1912, he was the first signatory of the Ulster Covenant which bound its signatories to resist Home Rule (by Catholics) with the threat that they would use “all means necessary” to do so. Carson founded the Ulster Volunteers, the first Northern paramilitary group. Once the Home Rule bill passed in the spring of 1914, civil war in Ireland was only averted by the onset of World War I a few months later.

As a lover of Ireland, Carson was bitter at the Tories for, in his opinion, forcing him down the path of supporting a divided Ireland. As the particulars of the Irish partition question were in reality almost impossible to come to grips with, he also blamed the Tories for defeating Home Rule in practice, although the full extent of Tory involvement in the issue, after the Parliament Act was passed, was to throw insubstantive verbal jabs the likes of which we see on Question Time.

The Suffragette Movement under the Pankhursts

Another plank in the Liberal platform was that of female suffrage. Once the Parliament Act had been passed, it was clear to the militant suffragettes that the Liberals should act upon this plank and give them the vote. When H.H. Asquith was characteristically equivocating and dilatory in his treatment of the suffragette representatives Emmaline and her daughter Christabel Pankhurst, the younger Pankhurst directed a brilliant and expensive terrorist campaign against the City of London in furtherance of her political goals.

Christabel was a gorgeous, imperious and commanding presence who was able to run a de facto terrorist cell from her exile in France, doing millions of pounds of damage to London and its businesses, shutting down thoroughfares and squares and even Parliament over the course of the nineteen-teens. Hunger strikes, and at least one public suicide, by Emily Davison, were also very effective in garnering public support. Because the English people and government had no idea how to deal with militant women in large numbers, the Asquith government eventually relented and promised suffrage, which was eventually granted in 1918 after the War, and full women’s suffrage was achieved in England in 1928.

However, the disruptions caused by the militant suffragettes also shook the nation’s confidence in Liberal leadership; and women voters didn’t forgive Asquith’s sleights to their cause, voting largely for Labour when their time came to speak at the polls.

Lloyd George and the Mining Syndicates

A machine politician from Wales and a lover of the working class, David Lloyd George, last Liberal Prime Minister of England, leaves a strange legacy. On one hand, he brought great reforms to the mining communities of Wales and Northern England, with wages and working conditions improving; he attacked ecclesiastical-denominational schooling in favor of national secular schools and curricula; he established a tradition of public housing; he was a strong voice against the Second Boer War; and established national welfare for the sick and infirm. On the other hand, he stewarded England’s unity government through World War I and instituted a military draft.

Unfortunately for Lloyd George, his support for miner’s rights was not as strong as the syndicalists who supported him were led to believe, and many of the miners who he had helped the most fled to the Labour Party after the War as well when he was unable to get major industrial companies to completely recognize labor unions. After the War, he did extend social welfare benefits to millions, predating the Great Society by some 40 years.


The Liberals experienced a pretty serious series of defeats in 1922 and 1923. Their margins diminished quickly, and they have spent much of the intervening years as a weak sister to Labour. Even today, they run a distant third behind Labour and the Tories.

A fan of the actions of the Liberals vis-a-vis the vast expansion of redistributionist government during this period might point to underlying social pressures as the inexorable force pushing the Liberal majority to act in such a radical fashion. It was going to happen, no matter what.

In my opinion, the Liberal Party was a victim of its own successes and excesses. The zeitgeist of the first half of the 20th century and more particularly of the nineteen-teens led voters to install a government which promised huge changes. When that government was installed, the changes it promised were too small to satisfy its broad constituency and too big to allow beautiful “old” England to continue its cultural slumber. Facing the changes that Liberals promised in terms of pursuing Irish Home Rule and suffrage turned out to be too big for the country to handle. The thirst for a cradle-to-grave welfare state, created in part by Asquith’s own introduction of old-age pensions and in part by Continental Europe’s powers providing these benefits, too large a task for the Liberals even with the Parliament Act in place to prevent Tory oversight.

As a lover of the American system of government and our written and continuing Constitution, the Parliament Act of 1911 seems to be the secular version of a national and abiding sin—a transgression against forces that are bigger than even the government itself. While I understand that there was nothing technically illegal about the Act, and there is no written English Constitution against which to measure the Act’s legality, the poker game that the Liberals played with the naïve George VI to force through its passage is abominable and perverse. While I am inclined to admire and esteem the more-conservative forces in any civic play, I believe I would have been a Liberal prior to the Act and a Tory thereafter, so distasteful the machinations of its passage are to me. In this vein, I read the rest of the book with a sense of smug satisfaction, as the maladies that befell the Liberals and England altogether over the course of the nineteen-teen years feeding my appetite for just desserts.

Just as it took a Carter to bring us a Reagan, it has taken an Obama—overreaching, imperious, and tone-deaf—to bring us the TEA movement. Government sucked before, but it takes a truly colossal overstep to awaken a slumbering majority. Will the current paradigm in partisan politics change due to Democratic arrogance, or will we as a free people knuckle under to an increasingly arbitrary and invasive tyranny? We have evidence that the forces at play stripping a free people of liberty can and have been defeated and decimated by the ballot and not the bullet. In the Internet Age, so much more will be possible, and I am confident that we in the country class will overcome the government class in time. And that time may come sooner than we think.

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posted by Open Blogger at 08:44 PM

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