Monday, August 04, 2008

The dangers of doing a Dangerfield

Well, a premature Dangerfield at least. His seminal work, The Strange Death of Liberal England, has exerted a morbid fascination on political historians ever since. It charted the political destruction of the Liberal Party, describing how it managed to deconstruct from an enormous political victory in 1906 up until the outbreak of World War I. It's a very readable book, standing up to the test of time remarkably well, and it identifies (from memory, I'm not going to read the damn thing again, and anyway I'm at work) four principal reasons for its demise - rebellions over taxation, Ireland, the suffragettes and the Trade Unions.

Ending as it does in 1914, the book doesn't really address the two biggest factors in the death of the party: the most immediate being the impact of the Great War, and perhaps the more final being the Liberal Party's failure to adjust to the expansion of the franchise and the concomitant rise of a more explicitly socialist party. Outflanked on the left, and facing a terminal squeezing its soft right - scared into Tory arms by the threat of a Labour Government, the Liberal Party finished bankrupt, excluded from all but a handful of Celtic fringes.

Heady stuff, and a great title. But the Liberal Party is the only one of the three great political parties that have governed Britain since the birth of party politics that has actually died. The catchiness of the title, and the apocalyptic nature of the story has tempted commentators to look too hard for comparisons. Today we have the Adam Smith Institute (and numerous columnists as well) querying whether the Strange Death of Labour England is at hand. They do well to be cautious - as they point out it's not so long since Geoffrey Wheatcroft's book, published in the aftermath of the 2005 election, The Strange Death of Tory England. One review comments on how

Journalist Geoffrey Wheatcroft explores the reasons behind the slow decline of the British Conservative (Tory) Party, once the undisputed mistress of the British political scene, now reduced to a rump of quarrelsome, factional schisms, disunited, directionless and with no sense of being able to return to power.

Doesn't look quite so prescient now does it?

Politics is a changeable game - today's accepted status quo was unimaginable yesterday, and might be unthinkable tomorrow. Labour look doomed under Gordon Brown, and Miliband would in all probability be little better. But Arma-Gordon shouldn't be called just yet. Dangerfield, after all, wrote his book in 1935, when there were a grand total of 21 Liberal MPs. Labour's not there yet.

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