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The Strange Survival of Liberal England: Political Leaders, Moral Values and the Reception of Economic Debate

Author(s):Green, E.H.H.
Tanner, D.M.
Reviewer(s):Tomlinson, Jim

Published by EH.NET (April 2009)

E.H.H. Green and D.M. Tanner, editors, The Strange Survival of Liberal England: Political Leaders, Moral Values and the Reception of Economic Debate. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. xiii + 313 pp. $99 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-521-88167-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jim Tomlinson, Department of History, University of Dundee.

The festschrift as a genre of academic publications seems nowadays to find little favor with publishers, and this book is not formally such a volume of tribute. But its motivating force is to celebrate the work of Peter Clarke upon his formal retirement ? though he continues to publish, most recently The Last Thousand Days of the British Empire (2007). In the book?s introduction Duncan Tanner (University of Wales, Bangor) and Ewen Green (who died in 2006) explain how the title signals an intent to turn on its head the theme of George Dangerfield?s Strange Death of Liberal England (first published 1935; re-published 1997). Dangerfield argued that in the face of the myriad crises of Edwardian Britain ? women?s suffrage, Irish Home Rule, industrial unrest ? liberalism and associated moderate creeds crumbled. In fact, the twentieth century in Britain was dominated by such moderate creeds, and much of Peter Clarke?s work is dominated by an attempt to understand that ?survival,? especially as embodied in various kinds of ?liberal socialism.? The authors included in this volume pursue similar concerns, albeit this takes them off in many different directions.

Peter Clarke?s work is primarily concerned with the twentieth century, as are the chapters here, with the exception of Boyd Hilton?s discussion of Robert Lowe?s period as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the late 1860s and early 1870s. However, while focused on an earlier period, this essay shares key themes with Clarke?s work, and this book as a whole. Those themes concern the place of economic argument in public and policy discourse, the role of political leaders in articulating and simplifying ideas generated by intellectuals, and how economic arguments were always embedded in wider moral concerns that could fundamentally shape their deployment. In his discussion, Hilton especially concentrates on the last of these themes, showing how Lowe?s seeming similarities of view with Gladstone on economic issues surrounding free trade and budgets were less significant than their ?moral? differences about the desirable character of state intervention.

The relationship between political leaders and economic ideas is further explored by James Thompson in an essay on political economy and the labor movement in the years 1880-1914. He shows both the impact of American ideas on British debates, but even more importantly, how moral concerns impacted upon the debate on the minimum wage; both its desirable moral consequences, but also its moral ?disadvantages? in threatening excessive state intervention in people?s lives. John Thompson?s chapter also concerns intellectual connections across the Atlantic, focusing on how initial hostility to American participation in the war drew on British liberal accounts of the origins of the war. But ultimately it was Wilson?s moralism which turned the tide in favor of such participation.

Duncan Tanner?s account of economic debate under the second Labour government of 1929-1931 shows how the extraordinarily difficult economic dilemmas caused for this government by the world slump were made even more intractable by the structures of policy-making within the Labour Party, but also by the particular style of leadership exercised by Macdonald (and Snowden). That style was highly moralistic, and ultimately it was Macdonald?s notions of public morality which condemned the government to destruction.

Tanner?s arguments undermine those of Robert Skidelsky?s Politicians and the Slump (1967), with its denunciation of Labour for not adopting Keynesian policies against the depression. This took as read not only that Keynes had adequate policies for that purpose, but also that politics could and should involve the straightforward ?application? of economic ideas by government. But as Peter Clarke?s own work amply demonstrated this model of ?rational? and narrowly economic debate determining the nature of economic policy always oversimplifies the relationship between politics, economics and policy-making. This theme is pursued by three essays on Keynes. Richard Toye explores the limited extent to which the Labour party took up Keynes? ideas between the wars, but also how ?Keynesianism? eventually came to play a role in Labour debates not so much as signifying support for particular policy options, but more as about broader (moral) commitments to certain notions of state activism. Ewen Green in similar fashion shows how Keynes was deployed by some Conservatives (especially Harold Macmillan) as part of internal Conservative debates about the party?s direction, but again where the content of ?Keynesianism? was strongly shaped by the particular political context of its deployment. Eugenio Biagini?s essay on Keynesianism in Italy makes this general point about the crucial nature of the political context in shaping the meaning of Keynes? work in particularly striking fashion. In Italian debates Keynesianism became associated with fascist state interventionism, and so was actively and deliberately resisted to an extent unparalleled in any other country. Liberal economists in Italy, especially Einaudi, (who became President of the Republic in the late 1940s) resisted Keynes on moral grounds, seeing him as undermining key values of thrift and hard work. This, of course, paralleled Hayek?s attacks on Keynes, which included the argument that Keynes was indifferent to inflation (which was quite untrue) because as a homosexual he had no children, and therefore no commitment to the wellbeing of future generations! (Biagini?s essay is original and persuasive, but including Maurice Dobb in a list of ?liberal economists? (p.223) is a somewhat surprising way of categorizing Cambridge?s most famous Marxist economist.)

Stefan Collini?s essay offers a characteristic combination of close textual reading and the ability to read across different genres of writing to show how inter-war cultural criticism wove a critique of modernity from the works of Tawney, Eliot, Leavis and, much lesser known, L.C. Knight?s Drama and Society in the Age of Johnson (1937). This critique combined an account of the seventeenth century?s alleged ?disassociation of sensibility? with an essentially Romantic critique of the ?economic motive? to provide an account of ?what went wrong? in Britain. This highly dubious account, built on the diverse ideological foundations so well analyzed by Collini, continues to play an unholy part in contemporary ?declinist? writing, across the political spectrum.

Finally, and appropriately, Barry Supple provides an overview of how moral concerns have always been interwoven with economic debate in twentieth century Britain. As he emphasizes, all the key issues of long-run performance, structural change and macroeconomic shifts have an irreducible distributional and moral aspect. This discussion aptly concludes what is a highly sophisticated series of essays, which should contribute to the very desirable process of integrating the history of the economy into the intellectual and moral, as well as the political and social, history of modern Britain.

Jim Tomlinson is Bonar Professor of Modern History at the University of Dundee, and is currently working on a number of issues concerning the historical political economy of modern Britain.

Subject(s):Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII