Review: Liberal Britain revisited

Review: Liberal Britain revisited

Ever since the publication of George Dangerfield’s classic ‘The Strange Death of Liberal England’, the demise of the Liberal Party pre-WW1 has fascinated historians. Robert Shiels reviews the latest addition to the literature.

The politically turbulent two decades prior to the Great War are often said to have changed Britain’s political landscape for ever but all historians tend to give precedence to their chosen era.

These years were also for some a period of decadence but that was not invariably the case for all citizens, and the representatives of labour were moving into the political arena in a meaningful way, not least to represent working men.

Vernon Bogdanor believes that the robustness of Britain’s parliamentary and political institutions and the liberal political culture, with the commitment to rational debate and argument, were powerful enough to carry the nation through over increasingly demanding government.

Perhaps the professor is correct, but as a matter of emphasis the rational debate and political activism amongst interested citizens ought to be seen as the dominating factor, rather than the institutions in which the debate and struggle for power and authority occurred.

The history set out in this book is that of the United Kingdom and its place in the world of the time. While dutiful but brief acknowledgement is made in recognition of the constituent parts of the Kingdom, nothing said deflects from the pre-eminence of London as the seat of political power.

This work is a material addition to the literature of the period and literally so, at about 850 pages of narrative. It is a remarkably condensed story of events in many areas that have generally been treated as specialist areas.

A modest Epilogue commends the preservation by the Edwardians of a liberal political culture, and what must be the standard textbook on the era is rounded off with 20 pages of suggested reading.

The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain Politics and Power Before the First World War by Vernon Bogdanor. Published by Biteback Publishing, 912pp.

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