Review- Dangerfield, “The Strange Death of Liberal England”

George Dangerfield, “The Strange Death of Liberal England, 1910-1914” (1935) – This is one of those classics of popular history that bob up on superlative lists and in the used book market every now and again. Dangerfield was editor at Vanity Fair when this was written, and it makes sense when you read it. Its question is an interesting one- how did the Liberal party go from a dominant force in British politics for centuries to an also-ran remainder in the early twentieth century? Dangerfield frames his answer around three “great rebellions” that started up around 1910, as the Liberals were riding high, and were only interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. These were a Tory rebellion against normal parliamentary procedure complete with threats of violence if parliament instituted Home Rule in Ireland; the women’s rebellion, meaning the campaigns of the suffragettes; and the worker’s rebellion, an outbreak of strikes and lockouts that roiled the country at the time.

It’s a Vanity Fair view of history in that it views the whole thing through the lens of personalities. This works comparatively well in terms of the parliamentary wrangling between Liberals and Tories, where it was really down to a few personalities. It got a lot less so once the Tories began appealing to Ulster unionism, and the framing is still more inadequate when dealing with the suffragettes and the labor movement. Dangerfield insists on reading the suffragette movement through the psychology of the Pankhurst family, never mind that ideological differences made a huge difference even within that family unit, as Sylvia became more socialist and her mother and sister did not. Roughly the same is true for the labor movement and figures like Jim Larkin, though there’s a little more attention paid to ideas like syndicalism, mostly as a noxious infection from abroad. Inevitably, the psychology he reads on to these movements is of the abnormal kind. While he stresses that he doesn’t disagree with, say, women’s suffrage or other progressive notions, he still depicts anyone working towards them as unbalanced. He lingers luridly on outbreaks of collective fury, like strike violence and the suffragette’s window-smashing campaign.

Dangerfield maintains ironic distance from liberalism. But he sees the arrangements that surrounded liberalism in the nineteenth century — relative quiet from the lower orders, politics as a game between gentlemen, etc. — as preconditions for a sane, sensible politics. This of course has gone completely out the window when he was writing on the thirties. I don’t think it’s laziness that led Dangerfield to personify and psychologize the movements the way he did (though it’s a lot easier writing about prominent personalities than to try to get a grip on who makes up a movement). I think it’s a natural outgrowth of an ideological tendency to dismiss the actors in mass movements as an unknowing, undifferentiated mob. In short, social movements deserve social history, not warmed over great-man (or great-scary-woman, like in his version of the suffragettes) stuff. **’

Review- Dangerfield, “The Strange Death of Liberal England”

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