2000 08 Leading Article

Liberals and Left-Liberals

[New Labour has its roots in the Labour Party’s origin as an offshoot of the Liberal Party.  How British Liberalism missed the chance to create a stable world order before 1914.]

“There’s nothing surer: the rich get rich and the poor get poorer”.

There was a time when Clare Short was of the opinion that the poverty of the poor was in some way connected with the riches of the rich. That time was either a moment ago or an eternity ago depending on how you feel about it. Time as experienced by the politicians of our era is a highly subjective phenomenon-if indeed it is a phenomenon at all for them, rather than a disposition of the mind. But, in terms of the revolution of the Earth, it was not very long ago that Clare Short was of the opinion that great wealth had an intrinsic connection with great poverty. She held that opinion within living memory-even with the memory of someone with the truncated life-expectancy of a Central African or a liberated Russian. But we do not presume to doubt the transient sincerity of politicians. in office, and so we accept that, within her own experience of time, it is so long since she held that opinion that it is beyond the reach of memory. The world she lives in now started three years ago and it is hardly reasonable to hold her accountable now for any nonsense she might have jabbered while waiting for the Creation.

She settled in very quickly to her job as Secretary of State for goodness all over the world. She adapted instantly to the basic requirement of that job-which is a sincere belief that the poor have brought their poverty upon themselves by their fecklessness, their improvidence, their tardiness in forming themselves into perfectly open markets for Western capital investment. She gets very impatient—even angry-when it is put to her that the immense Third World debts to the wealthy countries has something to do with Third World poverty and that the lot of the poor would improve if the debts were cancelled. The readiness with which her anger flares up possibly has something to do with the persistence in her subconscious of the opinion she used to hold before the creation of her present world. Her new self protects itself with anger when it might otherwise be subverted when confronted with the naive opinions of her old self.

It might be argued that all that has happened is that Clare Short is now In whereas she used to be Out. Parliamentary government is played as a game of Ins and Outs, and there was a time when it was frankly described in those terms. The Outs must try to get the Ins out. In order to do that they must simulate a degree of naiveté about what is practically possible so that they may appear sufficiently idealistic to make it worth while to oust the Ins. But because it is all only a game of Ins and Outs, it must be understood that there is very little difference between the Outs and the Ins other than the mere fact that one is out and the other is in. The game could not be played if there were fundamental differences between the Outs and the Ins, because in that case there would be periodic alternations of revolution and counter-revolution.

The rhetoric of party politics does, of course, make believe that the differences are fundamental. And this remains the case even though the Labour Party has given up the ideal of socialism and came closer in 1997 than had been done before in British politics to selling itself as Party B which was identical to the Government in every respect but personnel. And of course the make believe of fundamental antagonism and irreconcilability was not always make believe.

British party politics originated in a series of revolutions and counterrevolutions. It took over a hundred years for the difference between Whig and Tory to become so slight that there could be a change of administration which did not raise the spectre of civil war. Sir Robert Walpole, who founded the office of Prime Minister, imprisoned, exiled or executed his opponents at the start of his regime and when he fell a quarter of a century later it was touch and go whether there would be treason trials. And shortly after Walpole’s peaceful retirement it was touch and go whether the gentry of England would come out in support of the Stuart rebellion of 1745. It was not until the Tory gentry stayed at home and the country at large was pacified by a reign of terror that British politics began to fall into the largely meaningless routine of exaggerated posturing that we know today.

Lewis Namier, a foreigner who retained alien habits of thought despite becoming a naturalised Anglophile, observed in his Structure Of Politics On The Accession of George the Third (which caused a bit of a stir thirty or forty years ago) that there was no ideological substance to party-politics in 1760. There was only the pursuit of particular interest in a commonly accepted political medium. Namier, who came to England as a political refugee, judged English politics by European standards of the inter-war period, and he therefore found little substance in its supposed antagonisms. And he said so, approvingly. But that wasn’t playing the game. It was giving the game away.

The franchise reform of 1832 was enacted on the point of a middle class rebellion against Parliament. The Whigs who enacted it were in principle no more in favour of it than were the Tories who opposed it. The great question for all in the ruling stratum that had made Britain great was whether the aristocratic Parliament could resist middle class reform pressure yet again; and, if the practical judgement was that it couldn’t, whether the middle class could be absorbed into the political dynamic generated by the aristocracy since 1688.

The ideology of the reformers was a kind of second-hand version of the French enlightenment against which Edmund Burke had preached the great crusade forty years before. It consisted of little more than “laissez-faire”. There was a simple-minded conviction that if everything was let rip general harmony would result from capitalist anarchy. But the old politics persisted and therefore the new `freedom was manageable, though not containable. There was extensive- continuity of governing personnel from the 1820s to the 1840s, and in fact there was never a Prime Minister whose political origins lay in the Great Reform movement. The Tories, who had blocked the Reform in the Lords up to the point of no return, immediately after the Reform set about organising themselves as a mass membership party for the purpose of curbing the new middle class freedom. The first measures of protection for workers in the factories of the Reform capitalists were the product of Tory reaction against the spirit of the Reform.

As the franchise was broadened in the course of the 19th century, the phenomenon of working class Toryism became ever stronger. The Tory claim to be the ‘national’ party is hardly disputable on factual grounds. Disraeli’s One Nation ideology signified an orientation on the mass of society as distinct from the progressive middle class, whose ideology was essentially and-social. (Margaret Thatcher broke with historic Toryism and re-orientated the party on asocial Reform liberalism.) And socialist measures were first put on the agenda of practical politics by the Tory/Unionist combination of Lord Salisbury and Joseph Chamberlain in the 1880s and 1890s.

The events of actual history leave consequences behind them from generation to generation even though those events may be comprehensively `spun’ out of written history. Working class Toryism persists as a major fact of political life-surviving even Thatcher’s betrayal of Tory tradition of a century and a half-although ‘the great commercial industry of working class ideology decreed it to be `false consciousness’ many generations ago.

The problem of why socialism in England did not follow on from Toryism, and therefore displace the Tory Party, instead of following on from Liberalism and displacing the Liberal Party, never presented itself to the minds of socialist ideologists precisely because socialism developed under the wing of Liberalism. But the Socialism hatched by Liberalism was undoubtedly a self-contradictory movement, an infertile hybrid, as is demonstrated by the ease with which Blair and his colleagues resolved it into mere liberalism-the ideology of the market.

Liberalism, as universal competition in the market, was the ideology of the Great Reform and of Manchester capitalism-and of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair and hiss colleagues. In the perfectly liberal society each is in conflict with all in pursuit of economic advantage. There was at the outset a kind of Millenarian vision underlying the commitment to the pursuit of profit, which was therefore understood to be a means towards an end.

One of the early glorifiers of commercial profit was Richard Baxter, a very influential Puritan divine of the mid-17th century, who took profit to be a sign of grace, and the means towards an infinitely worthwhile end-in another world. That other world was still held in view by many of the reformers of the 1830s. The extreme case was the complacency with which Liberal ideologues presided over the Irish Famine (a product of English political economy that was merely triggered by the potato blight), because they understood it to be the means chosen by the Almighty to clear Ireland of human rubbish and prepare it for the general pursuit of commercial profit. (Charles Edward Trevelyan, who had economic control of Ireland during the Famine, and wrote an account of it in The Irish Crises(1848) was bred in the Evangelical Clapham Sect.)

But the other world did not long survive the Great Reform as a medium of actual political thought in England. Within a couple of generations it had become incredible, and the long theological mania that first gripped England in the 16th century finally came to an end. The pursuit of profit then ceased to be a means towards a conceivable end and became an end in itself-an activity to which there could be no imaginable end on its own ground, since the more general the pursuit of economic advantage became, the greater the incentive was to seek economic advantage, and the more opportunities were sought and found for making a profit.

Blair, like Thatcher before him, may pander to backward, unprogressive, unradical sentiments in the electorate with declarations in support of family values, but as a politician who gained power as a radical, a liberal, a progressive he necessarily dismantles the residue of the family that survived eighteen years of Thatcherite radicalism and a century and a half of more gradual liberalisation. Because the family is a black hole in a strictly commercial society. It is an anti-economic element in a market economy.

It used to be said that the family was the unit of society. That made sense when the family was itself a miniature society. But what is called the family today is a mere fragment of what the family used to be-and even that fragment is a suspect institution, heavily policed by social workers. The unit of liberal society is the individual. And things that used to be done within the family, in the form of living, and without thought of profit, have been taken away from the family and transferred to the market. And the human values that made family life attractive have been systematically devalued in actual life, and represented as forms of oppression, with a pale semblance of them being produced as commodities, as a source of vicarious experience, in the form of soap operas.

By strength of will and a degree of affluence an unprogressive individual may still arrange to have an old-fashioned family. But by current social standards that is eccentricity. And if there was large-scale reversion to family life the result would be drastic shrinkage of the market and economic collapse.

This state of affairs is not what was envisaged by the socialist ideal which gripped great numbers of people a hundred years ago. The socialist ideal as expressed by Robert Blatchford-the most influential socialist writer there has ever been in England-was, by present standards, nostalgic rather than liberal and progressive. But the socialist movement has in practice-with one, major exception in the form of Ernest Bevin-contributed to the realisation of the Liberal ideal rather than the socialist ideal.

Socialist writers have never questioned why this was so. They have taken it as axiomatic that the socialist movement should have been Liberal in orientation, and axiomatic assumptions are not conducive to historical questioning.

The great watershed in British political life in the 20th century was the controversy over the Imperial Tariff in the years immediately following the Boer War. Joseph Chamberlain-the Birmingham Liberal who joined the Tories in the 1880s on the basis of a social welfare programme designed to make capitalism tolerable to the workers-proposed, in effect, that the successful conquest of the Boer Republics should be the last Imperialist adventure. He advocated Imperial consolidation, political and economic, and the abandonment of balance-of power strategy against Europe which had been adopted by the Whigs in the years immediately following the 1688 Revolution for the purpose of achieving world dominance.

Chamberlain had been the statesman of Imperialism as popular political culture-Imperialism as Lebensraum for relieving social tensions in Britain, and for providing an adequate hinterland for the overdeveloped condition of Britain itself. It was on the combined issues of Imperialism and social welfare reform that he parted company with Gladstone. He thought about Empire and deliberately adopted an Imperial policy. Gladstone-the high Tory who became the classical Liberal-was anti-Imperialist-which meant in practice that he did what was necessary to maintain and expand the Empire, while refusing to reflect on what he was doing, or pretending that he was doing something else.

In that last generation of the 19th century, when the theological medium of popular thought evaporated, Britain came to understand itself as a kind of resurgence of the Roman Empire. That was the generation which formed Herbert Henry Asquith-the upstart Puritan who cultivated patrician attitudes, but who reverted to a kind of Millenarianism when he held the fate of the world in his hands in July/August 1914. But in the ruling elite it was only Chamberlain who dealt with Britain’s world position with a free mind-a mind free ofmimicry and affectation and humbug. And it was Chamberlain, who was not a Roman poseur, who tried to do for Britain what Augustus did for Rome according to Gibbon:

“The principal conquests of the Romans were achieved under the Republic; and the emperors, for the most part, were satisfied with preserving those dominions which had been acquired by the policy of the senate … The seven first centuries were filled with a rapid succession of triumphs; but it was reserved for Augustus to relinquish the ambitious design of subduing the whole earth, and to introduce a spirit of moderation into the public councils”. [Augustus was convinced that indefinite expansion of the Empire would put it in jeopardy, and that] “it would be easy to secure every concession which the safety or dignity of Rome might require from the most formidable Barbarians … Happily for the repose of mankind, the moderate system recommended by the wisdom of Augustus, was adopted by the fears and vices of his immediate successors”. (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter I).

The implication of calling a halt to the expansion of the Empire was that Britain should henceforth see itself as one of half-a-dozen Great Powers, should seek stability in the world-order on that basis, and should stop playing the balance-of-power game against Europe-because the purpose of the balance-of-power game was to keep Europe in turmoil so that Britain might have a free hand elsewhere.

Chamberlain proposed the establishment of friendly relations with Germany at a moment when Germany had become the strongest state in Europe, economically, politically and militarily. That was a fundamental breach of the rules of British foreign policy adopted around 1690.

Churchill explained the rules thus:

“For 400 years the foreign policy of England has been to oppose the strongest, most aggressive, most dominating Power on the Continent, and particularly to prevent the four Countries falling into the hands of such a Power. Viewed in the light of history, these four centuries of consistent purpose amid so many changes of names and facts and circumstances and conditions, must rank as one of the most remarkable episodes which the records of any race, nation, State or people can show. Moreover, on all occasions England took the more difficult course. Faced by Philip II of Spain, against Louis XIV under William III and Marlborough, against Napoleon, against William II of Germany, it would have been easy and must have been tempting to join with the stronger and share the fruits of his conquest. However, we always took the harder course, joined with the less strong Powers, made a combination among them, and thus defeated and frustrated the Continental military tyrant, whoever he was, whatever nation he led. Thus we preserved the liberties of Europe … Here is the wonderful unconscious tradition of British Foreign Policy.” (From 1936 speech reproduced in The Gathering Storm, Chapter XII)


Although Churchill was, on the whole, uneasy with moralistic humbug, this matter was too sacred for frankness. Britain maximised its own freedom of action in the rest of the world by preventing any stable order from being established in Europe through the operation of internal European forces. The notion that its balance-of-power interventions in Europe had either the purpose or the effect of “preserving the liberties of Europe” is very heavy moral spin indeed,. and it is entirely groundless with regard to the Kaiser. The German state had no expansionist territorial ambitions in Europe, nor was it going around the world destroying older civilisations. In fact the great offence of the Kaiser in the eyes of the British Government was the conservatism of his attitude towards the older states outside Europe, especially the Ottoman Empire which Britain was intent on conquering. And its only territorial ambition within Europe was that France should accept the boundary that resulted from the French attack on Prussia in 1870. But Germany was undoubtedly the strongest state in Europe in 1914, and therefore Britain, in the grip of “the wonderful unconscious tradition”, encouraged the other states to make war on it, even though Germany was content with the territorial status quo while Russia, France and Italy were expansionist (the latter two on the basis of irredentist claims),

And Churchill’s argument that it was tempting and would have been easy for Britain to establish friendly relations with the strongest state in Europe instead of organising combinations of the others to make war on it, was simply perverse. It is neither tempting nor easy for an aggressive Imperialist Power, with generations of success behind it, to call a halt to its aggressive Imperialism and that would have been the practical consequences of establishing friendly relations with the Kaiser’s Germany instead of plotting war against it.

Chamberlain did not act under the influence of “wonderful, unconscious tradition”. He was not a second generation bred for the elite. He was the only successful industrial capitalist who became a first-rank politician. He entered politics to enact social reforms because he saw with his own eyes that capitalist economy was sustainable in the long run only within a social framework. He became an overt and unashamed Imperialist for a mixture of social and commercial reasons. And then, as an outstandingly successful Imperialist statesman-who masterminded the establishment of white English property in Rhodesia (which Peter Hain is doing his best to hang on to in Zimbabwe)-he tried to make arrangements for the preservation of the Empire, because he saw with his own eyes that it needed them, just as he had seen with his own eyes what arrangements were needed for the preservation of industrial capitalism

But the wonderful, unconscious tradition proved to be too strong for him. The leader of the Tory wing of the party, Balfour, would not go all out for the Imperial Tariff and all that went with it. Churchill and many others deserted the Tory/Unionist Party for the Liberal Party. which in the course of the Boer War had come under the effective leadership of the Liberal Imperialist followers of Lord Rosebery-Asquith, R. B. Haldane, (later a Labour minister) and Lord Grey. After the 1906 election the Liberal Imperialists made secret preparations with France, through the `Committee of Imperial Defence’, for the balance-of-power war against Germany which produced chaos in Europe and put the skids under the Empire itself.

The British Empire missed out on its Augustan period by committing itself, through Liberal Imperialism, to indefinite expansion in indefinite forms that could not be consolidated.

The European War that broke out in July 1914 was Irredentist/Expansionist on the Allied side and defensive on the Axis side. France could not settle down within the borders that resulted from its 1870 war on Prussia. The loss of the mixed region of Alsace/Lorraine was found to be intolerable. And Tsarist Russia, in essence an expansionist state, was at that moment intent on hegemonising the Balkans and acquiring a position on the Mediterranean. And in 1915 Italy, encouraged by Britain, launched an irredentist war on Austria. (Insofar as Fascism is a combination of radical socialism with assertive nationalism, it had its origin in the Italian war movement of 1914/15, led by Mussolini and encouraged by Britain.)

Germany and Austria-Hungary had no territorial ambitions. They were both states on the defensive. Germany’s concern was that France should accept the legitimacy of the 1871 settlement. After Britain declared war on it, stopped its seaborne trade and set about seizing its colonies, Germany adopted war-aims beyond a restoration of the status quo of July 1914. But the war was not caused by German discontent with its borders as they stood in July 1914. And Germany was willing to accept severe limitations on the means it would use in its conflict with France if Britain would take up a position of neutrality with a view to acting as arbitrator in a settlement. But Britain, long before 1914, had made detailed secret military arrangements with France for co-ordinated action against Germany. It concealed its position until battle was joined on the Continent, and then it pounced in the expectation of a quick and easy victory.

The gains directly expected from the defeat of Germany were the German colonies-which were not very important-and the seizure of German trade. But the great prize was the Ottoman Empire, seizure of which would establish a continuous stretch of British territory from India to Egypt.

Britain had been expecting pieces of the decaying Ottoman Empire to fall into its hands until Germany began helping the Ottomans to modernize the infrastructure of the state in the Middle Fast. That was the major way in which Germany obstructed British Imperial ambition. Constantinople (Istanbul) declared itself neutral in the European War, which Britain was making a world war. But a war in which the Ottoman Empire survived through neutrality was not in the British script. Constantinople was subjected to a series of provocations designed to push it towards a declaration in favour of Germany. When the Turks did not respond to these provocations, Britain declared war on it anyway in November 1914, using the excuse of an obscure incident (or alleged incident) between Russian and Turkish boats in the Black Sea. The `Indian Army’-as that part of the British Army established in India used to be called-instantly sprang at Basra expecting to roll up the Ottoman Army without difficulty and be in the Garden of Eden by the spring. (Although Biblical belief as an actual medium of thought about world affairs had evaporated, the prospect of incorporating the site of the Garden of Eden into the British Empire raised a kind of nostalgic shiver of delight amongst the Imperialists whose Millenarianism had been secularised, and there was a feeling that it would be a fitting culmination of things.)

But the Turks proved to be almost as stubborn and capable as the Germans. It took years for the Indian Army’ to reach Baghdad-with the assistance of an ‘Arab Revolt’, which had been no part of the initial plan, and which had to be fed with false promises. (The peoples and creeds in the Middle Fast had lived more or less harmoniously together for centuries under the lax Ottoman Empire–they have never done since Britain about liberating them.)

The Liberal Imperialist War-the “war that will end war”-went badly astray. Even though Britain won it in the end, it did itself damage from which it never recovered.


Tony Blair has spoken of a regrettable division that occurred in the “radical” movement early in the twentieth century, and of the need to overcome it. He does not specify the division, but it can only mean the establishment of Labour as a comprehensively separate party from the Liberals. But that split had not really happened when the Liberal Party decided on World War in 1914. The Independent Labour Party was a very minor party, sharing the outlook of the Liberals on fundamentals, and with little apparent prospect of displacing the liberals. And when a Labour Party (with the ILP as a constituent element) rose to the position of second party in the state it did not do so in conflict with the Liberal Party that it was displacing.

What happened was that the Liberal Party self-destructed under the pressures of the Great War that it launched. As the Liberal Imperialist war dragged on year after year it was the Tory/Unionist Party that flourished. Elected government was suspended in 1915 for the duration of the War, and by 1918 the Opposition party of 1914 was effectively in power under the Premiership of Lloyd George-social radical and half-genuine anti-imperialist who in 1914 saw the opportunity for overtaking the Liberal Imperialist elite and took it. The decline of the Liberal Party began when Asquith, the pseudo-patrician, had to take Tories and Unionists into his Government in 1915. It collapsed when Asquith was ousted in 1916 by Lloyd George and the Tory/ Unionists.

The Liberal Party was a casualty of its own war. It was not overcome by the party which replaced it. And with the Liberal Party in ruins, many of the Liberal Imperialists moved into the Labour Party as the natural successor party. (One of these was R. B. Haldane, who as War Minister had made the ‘ secret arrangements with France before 1914 for the war on Germany. He became Lord Chancellor in the 1924 Labour Government).

Parliamentary Labour was prepared for office by being brought into the War Coalition in 1915-and Arthur Henderson participated in the execution of fellow-socialist, James Connolly, a wounded prisoner-of-war, in 1916.

Labour as a social power was faced down by Lloyd George on Black Friday, 1921 Parliamentary Labour was put in office as a minority government by the Liberal rump in 1924 and functioned as the Liberal offshoot that it was. A second period in office in 1929 led to the general collapse of 1931 in the face of severe economic crisis, a collapse of party politics in the face of a social crisis so severe that the party elites felt it was too dangerous to be allowed to feed into all-out party conflict. National Government -a. thing so abhorrent to British constitutional ideology that it might be considered a preliminary, or substitute, form of Fascism-operated all through the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s, under MacDonald, Baldwin, Chamberlain and Churchill.

Labour as a social power came to power in 1940 in the person of Ernest Bevin, founder and leader of the most powerful trade union, who had used the union as a political instrument, and who sat in the Cabinet before he had ever sat in the Commons.

Labour as a social power exercised political power domestically in the Churchill government of 1940-45, and prepared the ground for the fundamental reforms of 1945-50. Tony Blair in his wildest dreams did not envisage a reform as drastic as the post-1945 reform-and that reform had been prepared without grandiloquent radical rhetoric, almost as a conservative measure.

The main opposition to domestic government by Labour as a social power in Churchill’s coalition was Parliamentary Labour. Bevin, the trade union boss, was sniped at all through the war by Bevan, the parliamentary warrior. Bevin implicated the Tories to the greatest possible extent in the wartime reforms, thereby disabling their opposition to the consolidation of those reforms after the war. Bevan denounced him for selling out the socialist cause because he did not attack the Tories when bringing in these measures-and he even suggested that these measures were essentially Fascist and that Bevin was doing Hitler’s work for him.

Bevin had made his own analysis of the world in the early 1930s, rarely succeeding in taking the Labour Party with him. Then as Churchill’s Minister for Labour he was in effect the domestic Government for the duration of the War, and with his union as a base in the country, he acted in Parliament very much on his own understanding. He had a very wide freedom of action because of alienation between Churchill and the Tory Party, of which he was nominal leader. This alienation arose from the fact that six years before the war. Churchill had begun attacking the Tory Party from an ultra-imperialist position.

We have found that the Bevin Bevan dispute is unknown even to comparatively well-informed activists of the Labour Party today-and that the very names Bevin and Bevan are unknown. This means that Labour today is a party without a history-that it has no understanding of why it was able to enact a basic reform in the structure of things between 1940 and 1950, why it was comparatively ineffectual in every other period in office, and why it is now in the hands of lapsed Marxists led by a Smart Alec.


Leading Article, First published in Labour & Trade Union Review, August / September 2000

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