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Liberal England died a century ago and we still haven’t learned anything

I have a strong interest in political history and in liberalism. Despite that, I am ashamed to say that I have only just read George Dangerfield’s seminal The Strange Death of Liberal England for the first time.

However, I am also glad that I waited so long, because the parallels between the situation in which the great Liberal Party found itself in 1914 and the situation into which liberals have got ourselves today are striking. Many of the tragic mistakes made by the Liberal leaders in the pre-war years have been repeated, with the lessons the Conservative Party taught the country about itself during the great People’s Budget and Home Rule crises either forgotten or ignored.

Yet again, the Conservatives have set the terms and we liberals have failed to grasp how and why things have changed around us. Dangerfield describes the pre-war Liberal government as “dying with extreme reluctance and considerable skill” – and if today’s liberals continue to fail to learn the lessons set out clearly in his book, that is the fate that awaits our movement as it drifts aimlessly and with no obvious purpose through these post-Brexit, post-liberal settlement times.

I am no Marxist, but there is truth in the notion that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce. It was a tragedy that Asquith, with his Victorian notions of fair play and gentlemanliness, singularly failed to either anticipate or to respond effectively to the Conservatives’ evidently unfair and ungentlemanly attempts to wreck the People’s Budget.

The irony of the Liberals talking radically while remaining unflinchingly committed to a parliamentary solution, while the Conservatives made appeals to the sanctity of the constitution while making every effort to destroy it, should not be lost to modern liberals. We spent the May and Johnson eras patting ourselves on the back for each parliamentary defeat, only for Johnson to simply close Parliament down; we congratulated ourselves for playing by the parliamentary rules, only for Johnson to simply rewrite them by repealing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and secure an eighty seat majority (while ensuring the liberal, anti-hard Brexit Conservatives who had stood up to him inside the Commons chamber were booted out of politics forever). Liberals stood for the status quo and for institutional stability while the Conservatives made the radical case for change, and when that happens, the Conservatives usually win (see also: Thatcher).

There are echoes of the Brexit campaign and its aftermath in the Conservative response to the Irish Home Rule crisis, too. Again, those on the Liberal side of the argument – the Irish Party leader John Redmond, David Lloyd George, Winston Churchill and the rest – spoke in radical terms of Irish freedom from England while expecting the parliamentary system to deliver it, at the same time as the Conservative Edward Carson was overseeing the creation of a citizens’ militia and the formation of a provisional government in Ulster should there be any attempt to include that province within an independent Irish state. As a result, Home Rule was weakened and eventually destroyed, with six of the nine counties of Ulster immediately contracting out of the Irish Free State that eventually came into being.

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