6 August 2015

William Gladstone, Tim Farron and the death of British liberalism


China is an ancient civilisation. That even colours its political insults. Once, when Chris Patten was Governor of Hong Kong and did something of which the Beijing authorities disapproved, they described him as “the criminal of a thousand generations” That is an adaptable expression. What about “the dullest headline of a thousand generations?”

I have a candidate, from last week. “New Liberal leader Tim Farron appoints front-bench team.” Too little attention has been paid to one consequence of the recent General Election. An important part of British political history is under threat. One of the grandest of grands marques could be on its way to the breakers’ yard. The Liberal party is perilously close to extinction.

The Liberals emerged in the 1850s. For a time, it seemed as if they could become the dominant force in British politics; the natural party of government. They appeared to be the product of a successful fusion. In 1688/89, the Whigs, led by great noblemen, drove out James II and replaced him by William of Orange. This not only ensured the Protestant succession. The Tories, who descended from the Cavaliers in the Civil War, had a romantic attachment to the Crown and the Monarchy: Church and King. The Whigs were less romantic and more pragmatic. They were associated with a gradual move towards constitutional monarchy: the Crown in Parliament, with a gradually increasing emphasis on Parliament.

All this gave rise to the Whig theory of history, which reached its highest point in Macaulay’s writings. Macaulay believed in progress. He traced the constitutional evolution of Britain, from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century religious conflicts which gave rise to the Civil War through the gradual growth of political stability, accompanied by economic progress, to the glories of the Victorian era. Tory historians have challenged Macaulay on detail. Tory philosophers, especially Michael Oakeshott, have questioned Whig certainties. But most contemporary Tories would agree that Macaulay’s picture of Britain is attractive, even if painted with an over-broad brush. Such Tories would also concede that in the various constitutional arguments of the Eighteenth Century, the Whigs were usually right, at least until the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, when they were far too pro-French.

In the period just before the Great Reform Bill of 1832, the Whigs were righter than ever. As some sensible Tories recognised, Parliamentary reform was essential, to widen the franchise and re-unite the nation. But it was the Whigs who carried reform, against Tory opposition. After 1832, one might have thought that the Tories would decline into a reactionary rump. Instead, a leader of genius, Robert Peel, realigned his party with reality and brought it back to power – and another existential crisis. Over the Corn Laws, Disraeli, a wrecker of genius, split his party. All Peel’s good work was undone. Most of Peel’s ablest followers deserted the Tories and gradually made common cause with the Whigs. Among them was Gladstone. In the 1830s, Macaulay had described him as the rising hope of the stern and unbending Tories. By the late 1850s, he was helping to found the Liberal party.

It was a most promising coalition of Whigs, Peelites and urban Britain: of great aristocratic families such as the Russells and the Cavendishes, with the rising middle classes, as exemplified by Joe Chamberlain. These Liberals stood for reform, both in Parliament and in government. They believed in free trade and in the creative but economical use of the power of the state to solve social problems. Again, there seemed no reason why such a party should lose many elections.

Events supervened, especially in Ireland. Gladstone espoused Irish home rule. This lost him the support of most of the surviving Whigs, who feared for their Irish estates. It also alienated a lot of English Protestants – in those days, England was still a Protestant country – who did not want to abandon their Irish co-religionists, and fearing that home rule would mean Rome rule.

The Liberals faced another problem. At the beginning of the Twentieth Century, the Labour party came into being, initially with Liberal help. The early years are complex, and there was nothing inevitable about the final outcome in terms of party structure. But by the early Thirties, it became clear that in the struggle for Parliamentary power, there was only room for two major parties. One would be Labour, the party of the Left, based on the working class, standing for statism and socialism. The other would be the party that commanded the support of the middle classes, to oppose socialism and confiscatory taxation. That could have been the Liberals, but the Tories got there first, in greater strength.

Even so, the Liberals had a role. The centre ground of British politics could be fruitful territory. The Liberals were able to argue for personal freedom. They distrusted the Tories’ nostalgia for imperialism as well as their excessive enthusiasm for defence spending and military adventures. They also distrusted the Labour party’s belief in big government, plus its thraldom to the trade unions. From their central vantage, the Liberals were able to exercise a disproportionate amount of influence.

In the early Eighties, there was almost a breakthrough. The Labour party disappeared off to the Left. Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Shirley Williams formed the Social Democratic party, with the aim of breaking the mould of British politics. They nearly succeeded. But there was one enduring consequence. Popular support for the two main parties declined. Suddenly, the centre ground was larger. This remained true until 2010, and it enabled the Liberals to return to government.

They have now paid a terrible price for those five years in office. As no-one expected the Liberals to lose so many seats, no-one has yet explained the reasons for a defeat on such a scale. Yet there could be worse to come. In recent decades, the Liberals have usually been led by serious – or at least plausible – figures who were able to command a place at the political high table. Just below these household names, the prospect of high table receded. The average Liberal activist was an anoraked obsessive, whose political views were a blend of anger and simple-mindedness.They were Liberals in the American sense of the word: a rag-bag of leftism combined with dislike of one’s own country. So the leadership was a mere meniscus, on the surface of a deep well of pond life and absurdity.

Yet the Liberals survived. Back in 1970, they were reduced to six MPs. But their average calibre was higher than that of the other two main parties: a perfectly decent meniscus. Now, there are eight MPs: on average, much less impressive. Not only that. When Tim Farron became the new Liberal leader, the anoraks took over the asylum. There is no meniscus about him; he is a fully paid-up anorak.

The Liberals are not certain to disappear. There will always be a role for a ‘none of the above’ party: a spittoon party, a dustbin party: a party of poujadist protest. But there is one of those already: Ukip, which took a lot of Liberal votes. It is not clear how the Liberals will recover. Beyond spittoonery, they have a problem. What do they stand for: what do they believe? Gladstone, the greatest Liberal, fought the 1874 Election with a pledge to abolish the income tax. He had an immortal phrase: “money is best left to fructify in the pockets of the people.” He was also a profound moralist. For him, God was always more important than politics.

That leads us to an irony. Tim Farron is also religious. But Gladstone had the mien of an Old Testament prophet. Mr Farron, merely a squeaky little tub-thumper, is not worth Gladstone’s toe-nail clippings. The Liberals came in with Gladstone and God. They may go out with Farron and God.

They still have a great name, a great history and a pantheon of political titans. There is only one element missing: a remotely plausible present. That will be a difficult search.

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator