Gladstone's social legacy

Citizenship and Community
November 29, 1996

In this collection of essays on late 19th and early 20th-century liberalism we return to Dangerfield country. The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in the mid-1930s, has remained a beacon of racy and colourful history ever since, even if many of its assumptions and analyses have been questioned.

Since Dangerfield's book, however, the concept of "liberal England" has been mislaid. Liberals have been seen either as the arid, neo-Benthamite free trading industrialists whose ideology was hijacked by Margaret Thatcher and converted into a set of "Victorian values", which lauded self-seeking and ruthless competition, or have been collapsed into a version of the transatlantic "liberal", professing a flaccid and sentimentally permissive attitude towards the evils involved in the gritty realities of modern industrial society.

For young readers in the 1930s liberalism was something which had been defeated to be replaced by modernising socialism. In Stephen Spender's words the aim was to go "forward from liberalism". In recent times Liberalism has been regarded as some kind of a residual survivor from a lost age.

Eugenio Biagini has led the way in returning to a closer examination of the period between the end of Chartism and the emergence of a modern political labour movement. His account of popular liberalism in the "high Gladstonian" years has aroused controversy and debate, providing a refreshing return to serious history after some years in which shakily based "theoretical" discussion seemed to have taken over. These essays continue the exploration of aspects of liberalism in the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The collection does not treat the concept of liberalism simply as a political formulation, but looks at other aspects of social behaviour and belief - from labour organisation through Celtic nationalist movements to religious revivalism.

In earlier studies Biagini has stressed the continuities of the English radical tradition in the later 19th century. The rhetoric of popular radicalism is shown again here to have recurred in the rhetoric of a popularised and radicalised Liberal party and of many of its spokesmen and women. This language of radicalism was rarely based on an appeal to unmodified individualism. The book opens with a quote from the liberal journalist and ex-Chartist W. E. Adams who said in 1883 that community self-government was "the essence of all the political liberalism that is worthy of the name". The essays explore aspects of the communal as well as of the individual interests that fuelled the liberal England of the 40 years after Adams's statement. "Community" has spun off in our own time in a variety of political and social directions. "Citizenship" as well is hardly an unproblematic concept. Nevertheless the essays here, which take in the consideration of powerful interests which exerted often conflicting pressures on the delineation of liberal political programmes all help to clarify the concepts.

Regionalism within England and in Wales and Scotland is given the attention which is too often confined to Ireland in histories of the period. The third section is devoted to studies of Welsh and Highland nationalist movements which have been neglected or undervalued. Richard Lewis's study of a group of Welsh educationalists and John Shaw's of the crofter's resistance in the third quarter of the century are concerned with small groups, often overlooked, whose accent on language, culture and real or imagined history added a dimension to the wider political movements with which they were for a time associated. Neither offers a totally new reading of radicalism among the British Celts, but both suggest cultural factors whose influence should be considered. The two pieces on Ireland illustrate the far greater tensions imposed on the progammes of the major parties by the more powerful nationalist feelings in that country.

Free Trade may well be seen as still being the defining ideological touchstone in British liberalism throughout the 19th century. Two studies show the tensions which existed between any kind of radical political programme and the pure doctrine. The concept had, indeed, the quality of a religious doctrine rather than of a practical economic policy. Anthony Howe and Frank Trentmann look at the contradictions involved in the liberal attachment to the idea in two essays which examine the effects of imperial expansion and the demand for social policies which involved government intervention on traditional versions of the doctrine.

The contribution of these essays to the understanding of 19th-century liberalism and its history lies in the way in which the subject is treated as the political expression of a society at a particular point in its history. The third Reform Act had opened the way to the old radical demand for universal suffrage and for the eventual admission into the political system of men from classes which had never before taken part in it. Also of course for the admission of women, whose entry first into local government and then as voters and members of Parliament is covered by the volume. Dangerfield saw the militant suffragettes as profoundly illiberal. Martin Pugh and Pat Thane give accounts of the very liberal women who carried older traditions of benevolent and enlightened concern for the socially disadvantaged into the councils of the Liberal party. Their concerns included the education of the poor and promotion of public health as well as the training of servants for admission into refined homes. The liberal ladies do not, however, seem to have gone as far as the mainstream party with its admission of sanitised trade union officials as Lib-Lab members of Parliament, and seem not to have suggested that working-class women should be encouraged to take up political action.

This is a lively and interesting collection of studies, loosely connected with a central political theme. It is particularly welcome as a sign that the old barriers between political, social and economic history are not being rebuilt.

Dorothy Thompson is the author of Queen Victoria: Gender and Power.

Citizenship and Community: Liberals, Radicals, and Collective Identities in the British Isles, 1865-1931

Editor - EugEnio F. Biagini
ISBN - 0 521 48035 3
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 369

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