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The strange death of liberal England

The England upon which Mr. Asquith landed in May 1910 [returning from holiday, ed.], was in a very peculiar condition. It was about to shrug from its shoulders--at first irritably, then with violence--a venerable burden, a kind of sack. It was about to get rid of its Liberalism.

Liberalism in its Victorian plenitude had been an easy burden to bear, for it contained--and who can doubt it?--a various and variable collection of gold, stocks, Bibles, progressive thoughts, and decent inhibitions. It was solid and sensible and just a little mysterious; and though one could not exactly gambol with such a weight on one's shoulders, it permitted one to walk in a dignified manner and even to execute from time to time those eccentric little steps which are so necessary to the health of Englishmen.

Whatever his political convictions may have been, the Englishman of the '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 favor of peace--that is to say, he liked his wars to be fought at a distance and, if possible, in the name of God. If fact, he bore his Liberalism with that air of respectable and passionate idiosyncracy 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 upon its contents, turning them into nothing more than bits of old iron, fragments of intimate crockery, and other relics of a domestic past. What could be the matter? Liberalism was still embodied in a large political party; it enjoyed the support of philosophy and religion; it was intelligible, 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.

As for the Liberal Party, it was in the unfortunate position of having to run, too. It was the child of Progress, which is not only an illusion, but an athletic illusion, and which insists that it is better to hurl oneself backwards than to stand still. By 1910, the Liberals had reached a point where they could no longer advance; before them stood a barrier of Capital which they dared not attack. Behind them stood the House of Lords.