26 JUNE 1936, Page 23

Those Difficult Years

THE writers of what is called official biography are well aware that after a certain lapse of time, the " heavy " material which they have provided will be worked up by. some clever literary hand into a romantic or satiric theme. That is perfectly legitimate, and since Lytton Strachey set the fashion, it has been widely followed. The question which arises about the result is whether it should be judged as a contribution to historic truth, or as a literary performance, or in what measure both.

I am in considerable difficulty in answering this question about Mr. George Dangerfield's Strange Death of Liberal England. Strachey would have abhorred the title, which suggests a film scenario, but the book is better than the title, and undoubtedly Stracheyesque. The perfect restraint, however, with which Strachey saved irony from falling into facetiousness, and facetiousness from becoming tiresome, is a very fine art, and I cannot pretend to think that Mr. Dangerfield has mastered it. The theme is too ambitious, the book too long for much of this deliberate artistry. At the end I am in a puzzle to know exactly what Mr. Danger- field means by " Liberal England," and why he thinks it died, if it did die. If only for one chapter he could have dropped his ironic method and said exactly what he is driving at and what he thinks happened specifically to " Liberal England " in the turmoil of events which he describes with such picturesqueness, it would have been a great help to a matter-of-fact reader. He will no doubt reply that this would have been fatal to his method. The artist paints his picture and leaves it to make its own hn- pression. So be it, but I think I could paint another picture which would show " Liberal England " not dead at all but miraculously surviving all the trouble of these time; and the War, and endeavouring, with whatever drawbacks and discouragement, to keep the Liberal cause of free speech, democratic and Parliamentary Government alive in the world today.

This picture also would be premature ; we are far too near these events to schematise them with any confidence. Mr. Dangerfield turns the four years before the War into a self-contained melodrama, with the parts neatly laid out and the scenery to match. All the principal performers are painted up with the " human" and comic touches which are supposed to make them more lifelike, but which, in an odd way, have the opposite effect, if one happens to remember what they actually looked like and how they behaved. It is the nemesis of this kind of writing that when a certain point has been reached, every flick of the literary brush makes men and women a little more like puppets and a little less like human beings. Mr. Dangerfield, to do him justice, does his painting with great skill, and if one doesn't read him for too long on end, he is often extremely entertaining, but then one begins to long for a quiet narrative of fact, almost I had said, for a few statistics.

The four years under review cannot be treated by them- selves. They were the climax of the political and party warfare which, Mr. Gladstone said in 1894, had to " go on to its issue." It is tempting to look for a common formula which will cover the constitutional struggle between Lords and Commons, the Ulster movement, the Women's move- ment, and the Labour unrest in these years, but when it is said that an accumulation of unsolved problems led to a certain feverishness in the public mind and a general ten- dency to force the hands of Government and Parliament, there is little more to say. The Women's movement was undoubtedly of great importance, and its inner history will always make an exciting story. But to speak of it as a " rebellion " is to strain language. By resorting to violence, a small body of women presented the Executive Government with a problem which it could have solved without great difficulty if they had been men, but which baffled it precisely because they were women. The suffragettes had their justification in the perpetual side-tracking of the women's cause by Parliament, but in none of these years was there anything that could justly be called a " rebellion " on the part of the great body of women. It is similarly an exag-

geration to describe the strikes of that period as a w.trkers' " rebellion." They were undoubtedly very serious strikes, but they were settled without great difficulty through Government intervention. What was decided in those years was that with the great federations of Labour and Capital now ruling in the industrial world there could be no great strikes without Government intervention.

The constitutional crisis and the Ulster threat to resist Home Rule to the point of civil war raise other and more difficult questions. As to the former, if it had to be, and if the Crown had to be invoked, I do not think it could have been handled with greater propriety and gravity than it was by Asquith in these years. But when it came to the Ulster question, he was faced with a new fact which put all normal statesmanship out of court. This was that the regular British Opposition was prepared to back the Ulster Orangemen in physical resistance, and that it confidently reckoned on being able to prevent the Government front using the army to keep order in Ireland. There is much more to be said about " the Mutiny at the Curragh " than will be found in Mr. Dangerfield's chapter. and it may be debated for ever whether Asquith should have grasped that nettle more firmly, or whether he did right to play for time even though it meant parleying with the " rebels," rather than run the risk of civil war. But whatever it is, the moral has little to do with Liberalism or Conservatism ; it is simply that all normal politics become suspended when political parties appeal to force. Ulster in fact presented Europe with the first working model of Fascism. Here again, I think I could tell the story quite as plausibly as that of the suicide of Toryism as of the death of Liberalism. The Tories committed an act of great folly in staking the existence of the House of Lords on the rejection of Mr. Lloyd George's Budget, which they could have repealed in the fol- lowing year if, as they confidently expected, they had returned to power. To this day they are casting about for some alternative method of stemming the democratic tide. Further, by pushing their opposition to Home Rule to the extremes of the following year, they rendered certain the triumph of Sinn Fein in 1022 and the defeat of Unionism in both south and north Ireland.

The plight of the Liberal party, as distinguished front " Liberal England," belongs to a much wider order of events, and even to begin on that subject we should have to take in the War and the political and economic tendencies that followed. I own frankly that Mr. Dangerfield often irritates me. I knew many of the figures he deals with too intimately and saw their difficulties and anxieties too closely to be able to accept his reconstructions of them. To men of my generation the cleverest writing about these times often seems the most remote from the facts as we knew them. But Mr. Dangerlield is undoubtedly very clever, and those who are looking for evidence of the unwisdom with which the world is governed will find him very congenial. I would only ask them not to be too sure that they would have done better—or even not done worse--than those who had to carry on during these