'Such is the brief opening scene of a political tragi-comedy. And since dramatic irony consists of the audience's knowing what the actor does not know, it is at least an ironical scene. History unfortunately has decreed that the rest of the play should be somewhat wanting in nobility and balance; that is it should be hysterical, violent, and inconclusive: a mere fragment of the play, with the last act unwritten.'
Is this Britain after the Brexit vote? Or perhaps this is a wry comment on the precariously ambiguous and vanishing mandate of the new Conservative government elected in June 2017. No, this comes from a judgement about Britain's dangerously volatile political scene just prior to the First World War. It comes from George Dangerfield's Strange Death of Liberal England and I was reminded of this text when I suddenly confronted an old American copy of this book in my local Oxfam bookshop.
It is a demonstration that how we react to history texts can really be shaped by the context in which we read them! I first encountered the lyrical and winding prose of Dangerfield in the autumn of 1980 when I was a first year history undergraduate. Reading this next to the sounds of Bruce Springsteen's The River and The Clash's London Calling was incongruous and perhaps showed me how much had changed in a whole range of ways. But the killer impression this experience had on me was realising I was reading this during the first stages of the Thatcher revolution. From every pore of her government the desire to sweep away the cobwebs of the past was evident. Britain, so this narrative argued, had been irreparably damaged by the actions of complacent and old fashioned men schooled in the ideas and sentiments of a thoroughly liberal past. These evil men, so the Thatcher Revolution argued, should be discredited and held to account for the damage they did and for the havoc they wreaked. But actually so many of us in my small seminar group were still obvious products of the dying remnants of the consensus that had been an important part of the 20th century. Some of us even deployed regret in noting its passing. Many of us were exactly the right age to have had parents who had been involved in the War. Even then it seemed crucial that Mrs Thatcher was the first Prime Minister who really did not understand the War's impact upon people and political culture.
So all this meant that Dangerfield's book and its analysis was remote and bewildering. The ‘death’ described happened long ago and Thatcher's Britain really did seem to be the greedy predator feasting on the carrion left behind. Dangerfield painted a fragile Britain outflanked by the uncertainties surrounding it and the growing number of enemies from without and within that it was helpless to combat. In contrast Thatcher's Britain, at least to start with, just seemed to carry all before it and was capable of vanquishing anything that lay in its path. The apogee of this was reached with victory in the Falklands which harked back to a time I was only just starting to read about professionally, but one which my generation had been told was irretrievably past. Anachronism could be reborn in our lifetime if you could recapture Churchillian rhetoric, if only for a moment.
But fast forward thirty seven years and encountering Strange Death once again invokes entirely different thoughts. The Britain of today is a thoroughly different place in which to read this enthralling work and it just gets still more enthralling when its story is used to think about contemporary events. Dangerfield described Liberalism as an out of date ideology that became an overbearing burden to carry around. Moreover, its tacit acceptance meant it was thus capable of inspiring discontent on the grand scale. For this read the modern Conservative Party which chose to wash its dirty linen in public in what has proved to be supremely damaging to its sense of coherence. Many believe this act risked destroying the country merely to save a tired ideology. Some of the cultural assumptions of free market capitalism are also being questioned in everything from complaints about corporate tax avoidance to what goes in our food and our building materials. For the various foreign policy problems faced by Liberalism on the eve of the First World War read the looming leap in the dark of Brexit negotiations and their multiple potential outcomes. Ulster said NO in 1912 and its politics have similarly ground to a halt in a fashion that creates headaches for Westminster. Ulster is even now in a position to demand YES from an embattled and beleaguered Conservative government. This text, The Strange Death of Liberal England is now alive and real in a way that it simply was not 37 years ago. The question is does a new Dangerfield wait in the wings to write lyrically and enthrallingly about our own time?
Professor David Nash who works on blasphemy, history of shame, blame and culpability, links between religion and crime, history of secularisation, history of radicalism and the affinities all these have with cultural history.