The sound of the upper classes falling off their perch echoes in the political necropolis

Liberals - The Strange Death of Tory England - A Companion to Contemporary Britain 1939-2000
October 7, 2005

There is a necrophiliac tendency in the writing of British political history that might be called Strange Death Syndrome, "Strands" for short. The pathology remains a mystery, but the morbid fascination is easier to understand. The model and pattern is a legendary work by George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England , first published almost unnoticed in 1935 but reissued with a bang in 1966, with preface by Paul Johnson, who had been introduced to it by A.J.P. Taylor, his tutor. Taylor recommended it to his students as an example of how, in the writing of history, vividness and readability need be no obstacle to truth.

He knew whereof he spoke. Dangerfield turned several brilliant tricks. He fashioned not so much a book as a book-length tract, full of sharp social comment and mordant observation, on the cast and the craft of history writing. "The historian of prewar England is at one grave disadvantage.

Upon the face of every character he deals with there has stiffened a mask of facts, which only the acid of time can dissolve. Two centuries from now, Mr Asquith will be a fiction, a contrivance of taste, sensibility and scholarship; perhaps they will see him then as a man extravagantly moderate, who was facing at this precise moment four of the most immoderate years in English history." Dangerfield fixed on the period 1910-14, concluding that "Liberal England" was dead on its feet even before the outbreak of the Great War and that its final extinction could be dated quite precisely, on or about April 23, 1915, with the passing of Rupert Brooke ("If I should die, think only this of me...").

This was not at all what the well-brought-up were brought up to think, and it riled a good many. To add insult to injury, the writing was everything Taylor claimed for it. The pages crackled with cleverness. Rhetorical flourishes shot through with a devilish wit made for a scintillating read.

"Whatever his political convictions may have been, the Englishman of the (18)70s and 80s was something of a Liberal at heart. He believed in freedom, free trade, progress, and the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in reform. He was strongly in favour of peace - that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance and, if possible, in the name of God. In fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncrasy which is said to be typical of his nation, and was certainly typical of Mr Gladstone and the novels of Charles Dickens. But somehow or other, as the century turned, the burden of Liberalism grew more and more irksome; it began to give out a dismal, rattling sound; it was just as if some unfortunate miracle had been performed on its contents, turning them into bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past. What could the matter be? Liberalism was still embodied in a large political party; it enjoyed the support of philosophy and religion; it was intelligible, it was intelligent, and it was English. But it was also slow; and it so far transcended politics and economics as to impose itself upon behaviour as well. For a nation which wanted to revive a sluggish blood by running very fast and in any direction, Liberalism was clearly an inconvenient burden."

The Liberals had run out of raison d'etre. The chronicle of their decline into a fringe movement and revival as a "third force" is the organising principle, such as it is, of Roy Douglas's dogged recapitulation. Douglas comes not to bury Liberalism but to praise it; his book is in every sense the antithesis of Dangerfield's. After the exuberance of the death, the afterlife is a dreary affair. Much of the narrative is a kind of by-election by-play. "It is instructive to contrast the gigantic Liberal victory in Sutton and Cheam with the wretched Liberal result recorded on the very same day in Uxbridge, another London suburban Conservative seat.

The Liberals targeted Sutton and Cheam, directing all available volunteers into the constituency, and they won the seat; they did not target Uxbridge and forfeited their deposit." Instructive, perhaps, but by 1972 (and page 5) not very.

In this account, bathos is never far away. "Soon there were other signs of a widening gap between Lib Dems and the Blair Government. After the September 11 attacks in the United States, the Bush Administration took this as the occasion to declare a 'war on terrorism' whose first phase was a military assault on the real or believed headquarters of al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan. This action received support from the British Government, but began to shake the loyalty of Paul Marsden, Labour MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, who disagreed profoundly. Later in the year, Marsden defected to the Lib Dems, criticising in particular the 'continual freakery and spin' of the government." Freakery of any kind, continual or control, would be a relief from the toils of this barren tale, well described by Kenneth Morgan as a history of the Liberals with the liberalism left out.

The Strange Death of Tory England , Geoffrey Wheatcroft's shameless bid to steal Dangerfield's clothes, is more squib than tract, or as he might prefer, tractate. Wheatcroft is well read and well connected, but his pudding has no theme (as Churchill once said), and his vocabulary no inhibition. He is a glutton for lush language. An author who uses "pasquinade" twice in a book on Tory politics and politicking lacks either an editor or a sense of proportion. Wheatcroft, one might say, is too erudite by half. He piles it on; and at the same time provides an acute commentary on matters large and small. In a wonderful riff on "officers and gentlemen", he observes that the Army was almost as much the Tory Party in uniform as the Church was the Tory Party at prayer: when the memories of war faded, so too did the Tories. A good war meant an honourable man. The reverse applied. Tories in their time have not been slow to exploit what Wheatcroft calls the subterranean accusation that Labour was a party of embusqués , men who had avoided service when of an age for it. He quotes Harold Macmillan's sly remark about the gathering at the Cenotaph on Armistice Day: "Poor Mr Gaitskell always seems a little conscious on these occasions that he has no medals. However, he supported the war from Dr Dalton's side, in the Ministry of Economic Warfare." Just as telling, Macmillan made similar remarks about his colleague Rab Butler, embusqué and Munichois to boot. Internecine insinuation seems a Tory tradition.

Wheatcroft is not easily trumped in the quotation stakes. Not only does he have Francois Mitterrand's fabulous evocation of Margaret Thatcher - "the eyes of Caligula and the mouth of Marilyn Monroe" - but also the follow-up, hardly translatable in a respectable newspaper, " l'air d'une femme mal baisée ". Appropriately enough, The Strange Death of Tory England is steeped in Evelyn Waugh. Through his protagonist Guy Crouchback, Waugh turns his fisheye on Winston Churchill: "Guy knew Mr Churchill only as a professional politician, a master of sham-Augustan prose, a Zionist, an advocate of the Popular Front in Europe, an associate of the press lords and of Lloyd George." This is topped with an anecdote from Kenneth Rose, commanding a tank troop in the final offensive against Germany. They drew up to listen to Churchill's orations: "Advance, Britannia!" After a pause, the troop sergeant said, "Sounds as if the old bugger's pissed."

Wheatcroft does deflation beautifully, and has some fine set-pieces. "Mrs Thatcher had insisted in 1975 that 'We must have an ideology. The other side have got an ideology. We must have one tooI' But she forgot that Toryism is fundamentally unideological, and must be; that any ideas it picks up are makeshift and never immutable." Passages such as this bid to rival Dangerfield, yet the new work is neither as shocking nor as lyrical; and the book as a whole stubbornly fails to cohere. Its weaknesses are exposed by accumulation. Dangerfield had a thesis; Wheatcroft has a title and a string of set-pieces. As he almost concedes, his book was rushed in composition and production. It bears the marks. Now there is time for revision. Another death has been foretold. What price a posthumous paperback?

A Companion to Contemporary Britain provides, it says, sophisticated and authoritative overviews of the scholarship that has shaped our understanding of British history. It comprises 30 chapters of no more than 15 pages, by diverse hands, on everything from "British defence policy" (Simon Ball) to "Sexuality" (Lesley Hall). Some are more explicitly historiographical than others (John Welshman on "Health"). Some are textbooks-in-miniature (Andrew Blick on "Rewriting the unwritten constitution"). Some are absorbing despite the constraints (Richard Holt on "Sport", Richard Aldrich on "The secret state"). Some are efficient. Some are bland. Some will send even the eagermost to sleep: "The contradictions and inconsistencies of sexual attitudes and behaviour in contemporary Britain reflect the continuity of tradition woven from diverse strands of liberalism, desire to morally police others, toleration, anxieties over the private/public divide, flurries of moral panic, concerns over social class, fears of disorder, the wish for a quiet life and appreciation of bawdy humour, rendered even more complex by an increasingly multicultural society."

Perhaps only one has real pizzazz (Arthur Marwick on "Class"). From internal discussions at the BBC in 1938, Marwick quotes a valiant defence of the upper class: "England has gained much by having a class of people not compelled to earn their living, who have been able to devote their ability and time to developing our art of government, free institutions, etc." The strange death of Liberal and Tory England has been accompanied by the sound of such people falling off their perch. In Enemies of Promise , also dating from 1938, Cyril Connolly wrote of one of them, Alec Douglas-Home: "In the 18th century he would have become Prime Minister before he was 30; as it was he appeared honourably ineligible for the struggle of life." "Strands" takes its inexorable toll of the honourably ineligible.

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Nottingham University.

Liberals: A History of the Liberal and Liberal Democrat Parties

Author - Roy Douglas
Publisher - Hambledon
Pages - 395
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 1 85285 353 0

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