Liberalism is the secret ingredient of British politics—and history. But though there are liberals in every party, they lack one that is clearly their homeby Philip Collins / February 19, 2015 / Leave a comment
In his classic study The Strange Death of Liberal England, George Dangerfield wrapped an insight into a killer line. The Liberal landslide of 1906 was, he wrote, a victory from which the party never recovered. In the narrow terms of political fortune, a party that supplies the Deputy Prime Minister can hardly be said not to have recovered at all but, as the 2015 election skirmishes began, the Liberal Democrats came in at 5 per cent in one opinion poll. It has been a long descent from the triumphant peak of 1906. The fall poses once again a hidden question of British politics which is rarely posed explicitly: which party should a liberal join?
The decline of the main liberal party is all the more puzzling because Dangerfield’s insight kept on being updated. The history of British politics a century after David Lloyd George has been a series of liberal victories from which the Liberal Party never recovered. The first authentically liberal victories belonged to Lloyd George and Herbert Henry Asquith. Social insurance laid the seeds of what was later to become a comprehensive welfare state. The Liberal government of 1906 began the move, never since completed alas, to shift the burden of taxation from income to wealth, from earned income to unearned capital.
There is still a healthy historical dispute about whether the rise of the Labour Party was a sociological necessity or whether a more adept Liberal Party could not have enfolded the newly enfranchised working class. Certainly, there was no latent socialist mentality in the British working class. In A Strange, Eventful History, his masterpiece of interpretation of the Labour movement, Edmund Dell locates the abiding error of the British left in its failure to understand that there has never been a democratic majority for socialism. If the great tragedy of the British left is its division into two parties, as David Marquand famously observed in The Progressive Dilemma, then the true disaster is the demise of the Liberal Party. If only the Liberals could have avoided implosion the left’s detour into the blind alley of democratic socialism might have been avoided.
In the event, the Labour Party had to stand on the shoulders of Liberals before it could achieve anything. The second great liberal triumph…