The Future of British Liberalism


AMONG the innumerable victims of the Great War there is one unwept, unhonored, almost unnoted — and that is British Liberalism. By that is not meant, here, the Liberal Party, which, indeed, still pretends to exist, although it is divided against itself. What for the time being has disappeared is something profounder and more important than that — the spirit of Liberalism. The characters of that spirit may be indicated by recalling two great names: John Milton and John Stuart Mill; and two masterpieces: the Areopagitica, and the Essay on Liberty. From those men and in those works the spirit breathes. It is a spirit of individualism, of moral courage, of free speech and free thought, with a faith that, in a fair and open contest, truth will win the day. This account does not indeed define the political programme of Liberalism. But the programme grew out of the spirit. For freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of trade, freedom of nationality, political freedom of every kind, spring from, and are directed to, freedom of soul.

Well, the war killed that spirit, as war must always do, even though it be a war for freedom. For war is the opposite of Liberalism; and Liberals, when they wage it, must cease to be Liberals. If that were all, we might hope that the evil, like its cause, would be transitory. Perhaps it may. Perhaps Liberalism may revive. But even before 1914 there were forces working against it; and these have been strengthened by the war and its effects.

Briefly, political controversy, for some years past, has been resolving itself into a struggle between property and labor. And no condition could be more unfavorable to Liberalism.

This point may be made clearer by a few sentences on past history. The old English system, prior to the Reform Acts, whatever its defects, was peculiarly favorable to independence of character in the governing class. For government was in the hands of men economically and politically free and secure. They could, of course, and did do wrong, but if they wanted to do right, they had nothing to fear. For example, the famous Coke of Norfolk recorded that, during the war of American Independence, he never failed, for a single night, to drink to the success of Washington. He feared neither the Crown nor the government nor his constituents. His liberalism and individualism were made easy to him by his impregnable position as a great territorial magnate. And such Whigs as he were one of the sources of what was later called Liberalism. The early Radicals, who were another source, had not the same position. But they too were independent — Bentham had private means; James and John Stuart Mill were officials of the East India Company. Their politics were disinterested, and they did not depend upon an electorate which it was their life’s work to call into existence. The elder Mill, indeed, could naïvely suppose that the new democracy would take its cue from men of the middle class like himself, and the younger refused even to canvass the popular constituency which, nevertheless, elected him, as a distinguished philosopher, even though he confessed that he had called the working class liars.

John Stuart Mill, however, was already preoccupied by fear of the threat to Liberalism which he foresaw in the very democracy he was working to create. His Essay on Liberty is a passionate appeal against the tyranny of mob-opinion; and no candid observer of the present day can dispute that his fears were well founded. It is enough to cast a glance at the press of all countries. But Mill also foresaw the other great menace to Liberalism, the subordination of all political issues to the struggle between property and labor. It was, indeed, more than half a century from the passage of the first Reform Bill before that contest frankly declared itself in England. But it is now, here as in all other countries, the one live issue, and it has transformed the whole character of political thought and action.

Confining ourselves to England, it hardly seems that there is any longer an important place for the Liberal Party as such. For the Liberals have no common view upon the great issue. British politics already before the war were shaping toward a division into a party of wealth and a party of labor. But the latter was only beginning to form and assert itself; and the war, for the time being, suspended its activities. For though nominally associated with the Coalition, Labor had no influence over its policy, except in labor matters: and even there its only function was to allay disputes and discontent, in order that the nation might present a united front to the enemy. Then, at the General Election of December, 1918, Labor committed a kind of suicide by voting, in enormous numbers, not for its own, but for Coalition candidates, contributing thus to return to power a government which, ever since, it has been endeavoring in vain to get rid of.

The present position in the House of Commons is thus abnormal and does not represent the real political facts. It is probable that, at the next election, the Coalition will be defeated, and politicians are already reckoning on the possibility of a Labor government. There will, at any rate, be a very large Labor contingent in the House, with a very radical if not a socialist programme.

What will oppose Labor? The party which will be here called the Oligarchy; by which is meant a combination of the old aristocracy and the new plutocracy. It must be remembered that, in England, the old governing class never abdicated before the flood of democracy. They set to work, on the contrary, to organize and control the new electorate. The territorial aristocracy, the ‘old families’ of England, are still immensely powerful; not by any legal privilege, but by the allurements they can offer. By their social prestige, their dinners, their clubs, their country houses, their gifts of honor and places, they draw over to themselves the parvenus rising out of other classes. The desire for a title and a country estate has had enormous effects on the course of English politics. There has been formed, in this way, a new governing class, much as happened in the past at Rome. And the permeation of Labor by Socialist ideas, together with the formation of a political Labor Party, has bound that class together more powerfully than ever for the defense of their property rights. It is this class and this policy that the Coalition represents ; it is in absolute control of the House of Commons; and never was House so anti-Liberai as that which is now sitting under the domination of Mr. Lloyd George.

Now, the power of the Oligarchy is enormous. It has wealth, education of a sort, the habit of office, the tradition of parliamentary life, everything in that region that the Labor Party lacks. Above all, it has the control of the press. There do indeed linger still in England one or two creditable organs of the old Liberalism, but it seems impossible that they should long survive. With the exception of these, and of one or two not very effective Labor organs, the press is the mouth-piece of property. In both home and foreign affairs it stands for the interests against the people. And it does this with a vigor, a pertinacity, a dishonesty, a brutality, which throw a lurid light on the manners and morals of the class for which it writes.

For some time, then, before the war, and rapidly during and since, the old Conservative and Liberal parties have been fusing into a joint property-preserving party. Not unconnected with this has been the growth of Imperialism. In his Diaries, published the other day, Sir Wilfred Scawen Blunt throws an interesting light on the origins of this movement. He records, in the eighties, conversations with ambitious young members of the governing class, which show them bitten by the Darwinism then fashionable, and by its preposterous misapplication to political history. The ‘rights of small nations’ left these young men cold. They regarded foreign policy as a struggle for territory and power, and were determined that, in that struggle, England should come out on top. Their triumph is written in the story of Egypt, South Africa, Persia, and, finally, in the Great War itself, and in the imperialistic ‘ peace ’ that has failed to end it. The spirit of the Oligarchy is militaristic, imperialistic, predatory. One wing of it values empire for its own sake, the other for its pecuniary value. But the two go well together; for wherever territory is seized, concessions are seized, too; and where the soldier gets glory and the administrator posts, the plutocrat gets profits. It is the Oligarchy which is responsible for our seizure of Persia, Mesopotamia, and the German colonies; and which contemplates a reversal of our fiscal policy, so as to make a quarter of the globe a closed preserve for the sixty millions of white men of the Empire.


Turning now to Labor, it is, of course, opposed to the Oligarchy on the general question of property rights. Labor is moving rapidly toward the ownership and control of industry by the workers, whereas the Oligarchy exists to maintain its own ownership and control. It may be that a compromise will be reached on the point; it may be that one or other side will win out, though that is unlikely. But in any case the issue will occupy the whole of domestic politics for many years. In foreign affairs, the leaders of Labor are in principle anti-imperialistic and international. But it is not yet clear whether the rank and file will support them in this. And the possibility must be glanced at that the Oligarchy may tempt the workers to indorse imperialism by offering them their share in the spoils of a tribute Empire.

But, however this may be, Labor does not seem, any more than the Oligarchy, to offer a refuge for Liberalism. For the ethical character of the movement is not liberal, in the sense in which the term is here being used. It does not spring from individualism, from private conviction, from devotion to truth wherever it may lead. It is the organization of an oppressed class seeking deliverance, and its philosophy is that which suits its purpose. Its more intellectual leaders make a gospel of the economics of Marx, and have established colleges to teach this dogma, as the churches teach theirs. Whether the dogma is true or false does not here concern us. The point is that it is believed because it suits the cause, and that disbelievers are branded as heretics. And that attitude is the essence of anti-Liberalism.

On the whole, then, the outlook is not favorable for the continuance, the reformation of a Liberal party. And, in fact, the more energetic and ardent Liberals are beginning to join Labor, while the more prosperous and timid gravitate to the Coalition.

But Liberalism, we are suggesting, is something other and profounder than a Liberal party. And it would seem that the re-creation of Liberalism in the minds and souls of individuals is the most urgent present need. Men must have the courage to think for themselves, to express their own ideas, and to tolerate the expression of others which they regard as false and pernicious. Five years of war seem almost to have destroyed this capacity. Perhaps, indeed, even before the war, free thought and free speech were already declining from a personal conviction to an otiose formula. It seems difficult otherwise to account for the débâcle of the intellectuals in 1914. They, no less than everybody else, wore swept away by the flood of nationalist passion; and their endless discussions of the origins of the war were, in consequence, little else than sophistical special pleading. It was necessary, on patriotic grounds, to believe that Germany was the sole author of the war, and to mean by Germany the whole German people. It was necessary, also, therefore, to omit or distort the whole course of diplomacy prior to June, 1914, and to ignore the responsibility first of Serbia, then of Austria, then of Russia, whose mobilization, seldom even referred to by these patriots, finally precipitated the war. A whole mythology was thus built up, which embittered and intensified the passions of war to something like insanity, made an early and just peace impossible, involved Europe in economic ruin, and has almost destroyed every hope, either of material restoration or of spiritual reunion, by the most impracticable, vindictive, and iniquitous treaty ever botched together by statesmen. People say, with apparent satisfaction, that ‘this was a war, not of governments, but of nations.’ The truth is, that it has been possible for governments, by mendacious propaganda, to make peoples even madder than themselves. They created a Frankenstein; and Frankenstein insisted on his pound of flesh at Versailles.

Now men are beginning to be disillusioned. The truth is beginning to filter through. Yet even now, though it is scarcely possible to meet an intelligent man who will defend the peace, it is almost equally impossible to find one who will say publicly what he thinks. Men seem to be terrorized by the fear each individual has of what all the other individuals taken together are supposed to be feeling and thinking; till it sometimes appears as if public opinion were the opinion which nobody holds, but which everybody supposes other people to hold. This great illusion is no doubt mainly a product of the press. And the press is, beyond a doubt, the greatest menace to Liberalism. It is illiberal, one might say, by definition, for it depends upon reflecting the passions of the mob, because those are the easiest to evoke and to express. The first condition of being a Liberal is to be immune against this hypnotization by the press; never to pay any attention to its comments; always to read its statements of fact with a skeptical mind; and to recognize that, while it will never give the plain unvarnished truth about anything, yet it has subtler and more dangerous forms of lying than the lie direct, and that headlines, false emphasis, omissions, and distortions are the devices it employs in its business of misleading the public mind. Some palliatives may perhaps be devised against the worse excesses of this universal corrupter. But the only safe cure is a general skepticism. And there seem to be some signs that this is growing up; as a bad attack of an infectious disease makes the constitution immune against a repetition.


The press then is a principal enemy of Liberalism. What ought to be a principal friend is education. For a true education would liberate the mind and give it courage and independence. But that, it is to be feared, is what education too seldom does in schools and colleges and universities; and it is the last thing that a public opinion vitiated by five years of war desires that it should do. The Oligarchy, bent on preserving its privileged position, can hardly be favorable to free thought; nor can trade-unions, which withdrew support from Ruskin College because it did not teach Marxian economics. A big fight will have to be carried on in England if education is to lead to Liberalism; and, judging from such accounts as we receive over here, a yet bigger fight in America. We are told, for example, that a regular inquisition in form is being held in the State of New York, as to the opinion of the schoolteachers, and that a teacher has been refused a permanent license on the ground that he recommended his pupils to read an article not sufficiently abusive of the Bolsheviki, while his favorite reading was the Nation, the New Republic, and the Dial! Here is anti-Liberalism with a vengeance! The moral may be that those who intend to get a real education may have to get it rather in spite of, than because of, educational institutions. But the education so got may be the more valuable and permanent.

The Liberalism of which we have been speaking is a state of mind and soul. But what, in our own time, will be its application to political issues? In most countries now the original programme of Liberalism, the establishment of personal freedom and rights, has been achieved, so far as formal institutions can achieve it. The business of Liberalism in practice is now to see that that achievement is not destroyed by the tyranny of mob-opinion. The mob may be a mob of the rich or of the poor; for both, acting in the spirit of class, are mobs. But the danger before us is that the issue between Property and Labor may be fought by the methods of civil war, not by those of Liberalism.

Here, in England, we have already seen ominous signs of this tendency. First, there was the deliberate backing of the Ulster rebellion, in 1914, by the propertied and Conservative party in England. This was ‘direct action’ by the Oligarchy. Naturally, and with far better excuse, Labor talks of retaliation. When a Parliament, with a huge majority snatched by the most infamous appeal ever made to an electorate, continues to govern in defiance of public opinion; when it is deaf to every remonstrance, to every argument, to every counsel of bare decency, it is difficult not to sympathize with those who desire to paralyze its activities by the use of economic power.

But that game can be played by the other side, too, and it must end in destroying constitutional government and introducing civil war. The working classes deliberately put into power the government against which their more radical elements are urging the weapon of the strike. They ought to abide by the result, until they can overthrow their own creature by constitutional forms; just as they will expect their opponents to do, when they secure a majority themselves. Otherwise there is an end of government by discussion, which is the first and most fundamental application of the liberal spirit. For Liberalism in practice means that you do not appeal to force, armed or economic, except when the only alternative — free discussion and free voting — is cut off by arbitrary power. The present condition of the European Continent shows that the propertied classes are just as ready to have recourse to violence as the so-called Bolsheviki — or even more ready. And it is a very disquieting sign of the times that the press, controlled and directed by property, shows no abhorrence of White terrors, but only of Red; and that the governing class is no less willing to give recognition and support to counter-revolutionary tyrannies than to intervene, contrary to international right, to suppress revolutionary tyrannies in independent states. Such danger to internal peace and order as threatens in the future will seem to arise more from the bitter intransigeance of the possessing classes than from any desire of the mass of the workers to have recourse to violence.

The truth seems to be that the governing class acquiesced in democracy so long as they could control it. But, as soon as it shows signs of intending to take control itself, and abolish governing classes altogether, the latter revolt. Well, that is anti-Liberalism. The Liberal course is to devote every talent toward making any system work which is deliberately adopted, after free debate, by a freely elected assembly. Will the possessing classes be liberal enough to accept that truth? If they are, we may have internal peace. If they are not, the civilization of Europe, already shattered by the international war, may go under altogether in civil strife.

In conclusion, Liberalism, it has been urged, is at bottom a spirit — the spirit of free thought and of toleration. From that spirit follows the whole theory of individual rights and of popular government. In form these have now been established, almost throughout the world. But the spirit seems plainly to lag behind the form. The Great War paralyzed it. And before it has begun to assert itself, after that stupendous catastrophe, it is already confronted with an issue which it will require all its strength to handle — the great issue of social reconstruction. If that issue is to be handled constitutionally, there must be, not indeed of necessity a Liberal party,—that may have become impossible, — but at least a strong infusion of Liberalism into other parties. And that infusion can be made only by liberal individuals — men, that is, who have the courage to form their own convictions, to resist mobpsychology, and to rely wholly and only on persuasion to get their own views adopted by others. If that does not happen, democracy may degenerate into civil war, and then there will begin the old dreary oscillation between tyranny and anarchy. In that round of despair much of Europe is already involved. Who can confidently say that the rest will not follow suit?