29 JANUARY 1972, Page 13

New creeds for old

Michael Bentley

Liberal Politics in the Age of Gladstone and Rosebery D. A. Hamer (OUP £4.75) The Last Liberal Governments: Unfinished Business 1911-1914 Peter Rowland (Barrie and Jenkins £4.50) Discussion of the nature of British Liberalism has always been faintly absurd since no one — least of all the Liberals themselves — has been clear about what the term involved; or when observers have been clear, they have been so about a doctrine long since erased from the minds of party Liberals. Was the character of historic Liberalism located in a cumulative image of what Liberals were saying and doing at any particular time? Or was it rather to be found in a rope of dogmas and principles which tried to tie together in some way J. S. Mill, T. H. Green and J. M. Keynes? Perhaps both strands should be intertwined until one realistically compromises the other; perhaps (and it is not too far-fetched a thought) 'Liberalism ' never existed except as a bizarre rhetorical invention on the part of politicians looking for a church in which they could appear from the rear to be kneeling without a smile. What a useful church it turned out to be, with creeds one could reannounce at intervals when party fortunes were low: the electorate were promised a new Liberalism after 1880, another one from Rosebery after 1895, a further one from Campbell-Bannerman after 1906, a new yet old true one after 1918, a futuristic American one in the 1930s. In order to understand what this ' Liberalism ' was about at any one time it is of little use simply to recount what happened to the Liberal party, what leaders said and did and professed to believe, though all those things are necessary. For all its difficulty, what must be attempted is an analysis of the reactions of the electorate at all levels to the myths and images proffered by politicians; and of the contribution 'ordinary' Liberals made to the rhetorical atmosphere Liberal politicians thought it useful to imbibe. Because Professor Hamer has attempted something of the kind in an area where it has not been previously attempted, his study is a significant contribution to the history of Liberalism. It is not an easy book: the author has written with a furrowed brow and he expects his readers to share it. Before reaching the bottom of Page three we are introduced to ' alternative-government ' parties and ' particularcause ' sectionalism — distorting jargon Which political scientists will seize upon to Make their dismissals of the subject the more brief. It is worthwhile, however, to Jump these hurdles for the argument that follows is instructive and, to a point, convincing. Professor Hamer proceeds to consider Liberal politics between 1868 and 1906 in terms of several axes of which two seem to be of special importance. The first axis posits a tension between what Professor Hamer prefers to call ' sectional ' politics and a contemporary concern with Liberalism as a complete doctrine rather than an amalgamation of ideas kept together only by a mutual need for power. The second axis shows the consequences of this tension for national politics: on the one hand a determination to define Liberalism in terms of a single great issue s, uch as the Irish Question in order to concentrate ' the mind of the party and overcome the endemic sectional bickering that tended to characterise it: on the other an anxiety to avoid this kind of politics „and a preference among leade'rs such as narcourt for a wider appeal through an alliance with Radicalism or a 'programme ' !!Such as the one agreed upon at Newcastle ..? 1891. Especially useful is Professor Iiilarner's decision to continue his study :?seyond 189; his portrait of the Irish `hestion tools, in the light of the conceptual he employs is not nearly so striking !s, that of, for example, the nature of Ljberal Imperialism or the roots of L:ahiPbell-Bannerman's party strength. :..?et Within this analytical strength lie needIne seeds of the book's weaknesses: the for system, the assumption that the i career ' of a politician (rather than his tndi iyidual actions) needs to be ' inre I.Igible,' the assumption that contempo ries felt the weight of certain con ilaerations perceived clearly, perhaps, only 1 retrospect — all these give the book an 0 cnecasi"a1 false note. Nor is the matter of vaceptual butchery limited to questions ,s1 approach Loinstant ; for despite Professor Hamer's acknowledgement to Professor t „„ctionne.ent, his book contains no substantial oc_ on rank and file Liberals in the hoisn-Lituen,..,.. _ y Llus, which leads one to feel that tin.° " .Liberal Politics" are being forced v Ugh too narrow a channel. wo,.ekrY Much in contrast is Mr Rowland's niu`c7i Here the intention is to narrate as tried a4s Possible of what the Liberal party and was forced into doing 4 Ween 1911 and 1914. It is not an staundialYsis ' of some entity such as that telling by Professor Hamer; it is the Pros: °f a story in bouncy, optimistic ittio; ----rather as though Mr Rowland hopi„is his story will end in disaster but is is littglea first v gpaoiintistf ih n hope that it will not. There l carping: readers of the ourne of The Last Liberal Govern ments will know what to expect from the second. Mr Rowland is good on matters which can be easily documented, such as the Lloyd George-Churchill quarrel over the naval estimates in 1913-14; he is not so good when the subject requires voyages to be made out of London. Presumably before seeing this book, Professor Hamer wrote in his Introduction that since Halevy no historian had succeeded in rising above the level of narrative for the Liberal government of 1905-15." The judgement must be said to stand after the publication of Mr Rowland's second volume.