The Strange Survival of Liberal Britain, by Vernon Bogdanor, Biteback, xxxi + 880 pp, £35, ISBN: 971785907623
On November 15th 1831, a momentous treaty was signed in London (once upon a time a crucial centre of European diplomacy). Under the Treaty relative to the Separation of Belgium from Holland, the great powers (Great Britain, Austria, France, Prussia and Russia), together with Belgium, defined the limits of the Belgian state and provided concessions to the Netherlands. Article VII provided that Belgium “shall form an independent and perpetually Neutral State”. The signature list was a Who’s Who of international statesmen of the day. Lord Palmerston signed for Britain (the treaty noting his status as a Peer of Ireland), Prince Esterházy for Austria, Talleyrand for France, Baron de Bülow for Prussia.
On April 19th 1839, the treaty was replaced (in order to involve the Dutch) in a complex series of new agreements, again all signed in London, between the Great Powers and, separately, Belgium and the Netherlands, and between those countries. However the principle of Belgian independence and neutrality was preserved in the common articles. By further instruments of August 9th and 11th 1870, the UK agreed separately with Prussia and France to defend Belgian neutrality if that country was attacked by the other. A united German Empire was proclaimed in January 1871. As the successor state to Prussia in international law, it became bound by Prussia’s pre-existing commitments. In breach of these, in an act of criminal aggression, German troops crossed the Belgian border at 8.02 am on August 4th, 1914.
So seriously did Britain take international law a century ago that when Germany failed to comply with an ultimatum issued in response to the invasion by the deadline of 11.00 pm on the 4th (midnight Berlin time), Britain sent a junior foreign office official, Harold Nicolson, around to the German embassy at 11.05 pm in the foreign secretary’s Rolls Royce in order to deliver a written declaration of war. (And also, with a characteristically English twist that could have been scripted by Richard Curtis and Ben Elton, to retrieve a hastily written declaration of war that had been delivered by mistake about an hour earlier.) On foot of that, Britain was willing to sacrifice the lives of 880,000 British troops in the war that followed, and those of perhaps another 150,000 from the Empire. Over two million British and Empire soldiers would be wounded in the conflict.
A war poster preserved in the (truly excellent) Imperial War Museum is headed “THE SCRAP OF PAPER”. It reads:
Prussia’s Perfidy – Britain’s Bond. The Treaty of 1839 (which the German Chancellor tore up, remarking that it was only “a scrap of paper”) said: “BELGIUM … SHALL FORM AN INDEPENDENT AND PERPETUALLY NEUTRAL STATE. IT SHALL BE BOUND TO OBSERVE SUCH NEUTRALITY TOWARDS ALL OTHER STATES.” These are the Seals and Signatures of the Six Nations who guaranteed Belgian Independence and Neutrality GREAT BRITAIN ‑ Palmerston BELGIUM ‑ Sylvain Van De Weyer AUSTRIA ‑ Senfft FRANCE ‑ H. Sebastiani GERMANY ‑ Bülow RUSSIA – Pozzo Di Borgo. Germany has trampled on the Treaty she signed. CAN BRITONS STAND BY WHILE GERMANY CRUSHES AN INNOCENT PEOPLE? ENLIST TO-DAY.”
Of course there were other reasons to go to war even without the Belgian dimension – a desire not to see German gunboats in the channel and troops massed at Calais ‑ but let’s not say that Germany’s flagrant disregard of international law wasn’t a fairly major part of it.
Turn the clock forward to 6.48 pm on July 20th 2022, and the third and final reading in the House of Commons of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill 2022. In a strange reversal of roles, with Europe in general and Germany in particular looking on in horror, by a vote of 267 to 195, the house decided to approve a Bill that expressly allows a flagrant violation of international law, and specifically of the Withdrawal Agreement and its Protocols, signed in London (by Boris Johnson personally) and Brussels (on behalf of the EU) on January 24th 2020.
Doubling down on this position, the British government published a “legal paper” which made the grotesque argument that this breach of international law was covered by the doctrine of necessity. That doctrine has no application here for reasons that are almost too numerous and obvious to outline – the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement and its protocols can’t be used to undermine the binding nature of the agreement itself; there is no widespread socio-political unrest in Northern Ireland as alleged; most MLAs and the Northern business community are supportive of the protocol; there is no grave and imminent problem to be solved here; the protocol is an economic opportunity for the North (as witnessed by its relative performance on some metrics compared with the mainland); the essentials of the impacts are not only not unanticipated but were clearly identified in advance; pandering to unionist objections or ultimatums (or blackmail depending on your point of view) does not create a state of necessity that nullifies international law; that is especially so when those objections were there all along; the agreed dispute resolution mechanisms haven’t been tried; the UK itself has contributed to the situation ,having agreed the protocol less than three years ago; any unilateral change fundamentally threatens the whole basis of EU free trade and the vital interests of the other party.
This absurd paper, allegedly created after shopping around for legal advice (presumably we will find out for sure some day) is a historic low point of humiliation for Britain’s international reputation.
And of course such “liberties with the actualité” become massively amplified within Northern Ireland. One unfortunate group, “Unionists against the NI protocol”, have posters that claim “NI Protocol makes the Belfast Agreement Null & Void”. Sadly they forgot to add “Jinx. No Comebacks. Times a Thousand”, which is the necessary wording for claims of this nature to be legally cognisable by Freemen of the Land.
If only there could be a proper poster giving a factual explanation of the situation. Maybe something about perfidy, tearing up treaties, trampling on the signature of one’s own government? Who knows?
This then is how completely liberal Britain’s commitment to international law has declined by comparison with the reference date of 1914. All one can hope for is that the whole thing is a giant wheeze, never intended to be actually operated, but a cover to encourage some face-saving adjustments. But perhaps some things about liberal Britain are constant. Vernon Bogdanor quotes a comment on the Tories as being:
“so absolutely convinced that England will be ruined if anyone replaces them that their patriotism and self-sacrifice lead them to swallow any quantity of dirt and humiliation to remain in Downing Street for the public interest. It is a strange point of view; and the most curious feature is its absolute sincerity.”
One doesn’t have to agree with that of course to be struck by its modernity – but it is not a Guardian editorial on the Conservative Party of 2022 but Winston Churchill’s view of the party in 1903.
The Marxian principle of history repeating itself applies equally to the left – we find in 1909 that leaders like MacDonald even from the outset had “little in common with the somewhat sentimental and utopian outlook” of the membership.
The title of Bogdanor’s massive, and fascinating, book is a bit of a historian’s inside joke. He is replying to the book by British-American journalist George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England, published in 1935, which sought to chart the causes for the eclipse of the Liberal Party. Dangerfield’s turgidly over-written and curiously titled book has had an equally curious influence on the titles of other books – a probably highly inaccurate search on one books website yields an implausibly large number of hits for similar titles, including, randomly, The Strange Death of Labour Scotland by Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw (2012), The Strange Death of Marxism (Paul Edward Gottfried, 2018), The Strange Death of Edmund Godfrey (Alan Marshall, 1999), The Strange Death of Europe (Douglas Murray, 2017), The Strange Death of David Kelly (Norman Baker, 2007).
Richard Dawkins lamented that his (excellent and readable) book The Selfish Gene (1976) had been unfairly misunderstood by people who “read books by title”. He thought in hindsight that perhaps The Cooperative Gene might have been at least an equally plausible name. But that would have been boring. The title he actually chose was a stroke of genius.
Bogdanor doesn’t quite compress the entire thesis of this book into the title, but it does bring out two main points. Throughout this elegantly written blockbuster, the author resists a restricted focus on England as opposed to Britain more widely. Reflecting what might be thought of as a pro-union perspective, he thinks of Britain not so much as a sceptred isle and a geographical entity but as a political and cultural community, with inclusive emphasis on Ireland in particular. That widening of perspective from a narrow Englishness to a broader Britishness captures something very contemporary in UK culture at the moment that is coming to a reckoning with an imperial and colonial past and finding space for a much wider inclusion of the kaleidoscope of Britishness that includes all countries, heritages, ethnicities and cultures that have been part of the British story.
Secondly he emphasises the survival and flourishing of liberalism in Britain above and beyond the fate of the Liberal Party. Like one of Dawkins’s selfish genes that discards its original individual carrier, liberalism has flourished in the British social ecosystem, albeit perhaps at the cost of the initial host organism. Again this pervading spirit of liberalism taps into something vibrant in modern Britain.
Bogdanor’s thesis is the survival – triumph even – of liberal Britain; a thesis presented as a reply to historians who see only a retreat to extremes of conservatism and socialism. That thriving spirit is perhaps epitomised in Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympic celebration of freedom, equality, prosperity, the welfare state, the energy of popular culture, universal communication. The very decline of the Liberal Party proves the point for Bogdanor – who needs a Liberal Party when the whole country is liberal? Maybe this is the fate of movements everywhere once their agenda has been taken up universally. As Alan Watts has said, enemies are ”terribly important to you”.
What Bogdanor doesn’t do (and this is maybe quite English rather than anything else) is to define what exactly he means by liberal Britain or liberalism (I don’t think Dangerfield did either). Good old-fashioned English pragmatism militates against tying oneself down with pesky written norms, binding constitutions or precise definitions. And maybe there’s a lot to be said for that. But if one were to attempt a definition of liberalism based on Bogdanor’s book it might include an instinctive attraction to the moderate via media, the principle of government by consent, defence of the individual over the collective, internationalism but non-militarism, anti-imperialism, free trade, social provision in the common good, a desire for legal, institutional and social reform combined with respect for the institutions of the state, religious free-thinking, optimism, tolerance, common sense, rational argument and humane, decent, peaceful politics. Admittedly, we’ve touched on the point that any generalisation that all of these qualities have survived and flourished up to the present would need at least some qualification, which Bogdanor’s focus on the period up to 1914 couldn’t be intended to provide.
We will come back to Ireland in more detail, but on virtually any definition, the multi-stranded diversity of cultures and the open liberalism that are so central to modern Britain have vastly more in common with the everyday perspectives of Irish nationalists and republicans than with the fossilised, frozen cultural attitudes of some sections of unionism. Regarding elements of the latter, one thinks of hesitations and mis-steps within unionism on issues like accepting modern life sciences and the fact of evolution particularly, ethnic pluralism, equality and rights more broadly, and linguistic diversity.
English was not the mother tongue of one of the heroes of this book, David Lloyd George. One wonders why all indigenous languages of the British and Irish Isles apart from Irish are so unthreatening to unionists. The risk is of a disconnect between an inward-turning, defensive, Bible-bound culture of sections of unionism and the post-Enlightenment, multi-cultured, outward-facing, progressive reality of modern Britain. In this sense many Irish people (I include myself) are as British if not more so than some members of the DUP. What’s needed of course is for both unionism and nationalism to follow Joyce’s advice, awake from the nightmare of the past and forge a common future to address the novel and changing problems of the present moment. That should be a space where the best of Irishness and the best of Britishness can intersect.
Such is Bogdanor’s obvious enthusiasm for his subject that one imagines he had to hold himself back from adding another 880 pages to take the story forward towards today, but in the end he confined the action to the twenty-year period up to the outbreak of the First World War. This focus is tremendously illuminating, perhaps working off Goethe’s aphorism (which he quotes as equally applicable to Bismarck) that In der Beschränkung zeigt sich erst der Meister / Only in the limitation does the master show himself (Was wir bringen / What we bring, 1802). In describing British and European politics of this period, Bogdanor shows his skill as a polymath, navigating domestic British political intrigue, the fine details of social legislation, and the grand European geopolitics of the era.
Some of these sub-strands are cracking stories, told accessibly and with the pace of a thriller, even though we know the endings already. In particular, the controversy over the People’s Budget, and the run-up to war, are page-turningly pot-boiling. The what-ifs are particularly intriguing, such as the list of people’s peers that might have been drafted in to save the budget – such a shame that in the end there was no Lord (Bertrand) Russell, Lord (Thomas) Hardy, Lord (JM) Barrie. Bogdanor comments to the effect that the addition of these people’s peers would have vastly raised standards in parliament.
The chequered efforts to move towards a more democratic system are fascinating, with lessons for our times. The struggle for the vote for women presented major complexities in the context where the vote for men was so unevenly available. The plural, property-based system of the time allowed the Liberal Unionist Joseph Chamberlain to cast six votes at the turn of the century. (But that’s nothing – under our obviously far more advanced Irish system, in the 2011 election I cast eight votes: one for the Dáil, one each for the NUI and TCD Seanad panels, and five votes on the Seanad vocational panels as an elector for that purpose at the time.)
Much historical and other writing is an attempt to tear down institutions or criticise with the benefit of hindsight, so in a way it’s refreshing that Bogdanor attempts some sympathetic treatment of many of the difficult decisions with which the British political classes were wrestling in the momentous years leading up to 1914. For instance, on the Boer war in general, and Britain’s concentration camps in particular, he endeavours to counter and contextualise the harshest criticisms of Britain while acknowledging the brutality (burning 30,000 farms – the Black and Tans almost seem amateur war criminals compared to Lord Kitchener), the illegality, and the ultimate abandonment by the British of the principle of electoral equality in South Africa that had such appalling consequences throughout the following decades. Bogdanor’s mission is a perilous task in febrile times, but one he navigates with great skill.
The tragedy of the outbreak of war in Europe is particularly well described. The Liberal foreign minister, Edward Grey, is another hero of the book, playing the traditional English role in a crisis (as seen in England anyway) of being the adult in the room trying to make people see sense and seeking to explore multiple creative options to pull things back from the brink (again there is a painful contrast here with the recent Protocol controversy). Bogdanor does a sterling job of defending Grey, who has occasionally been seen as a bit of a whipping boy (perhaps any foreign secretary in office at the time of an outbreak of world war might risk such a fate). And (leaving aside the Protocol) Britain’s leadership role does live on in some forms today: A BBC report of May 2022 noted defence secretary Ben Wallace pointing out that “Russia is ‘mirroring the fascism and tyranny’ of World War Two Nazis in its invasion of Ukraine”.
Speaking of criminal wars of aggression, one returns to Britain’s history in Ireland. Bogdanor records the view of Gerald Balfour (Irish secretary and brother of the Tory prime minister) that on the basis of Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest the Irish “ought to have been exterminated long ago .. . but it is too late now”. FE Smith said in 1910 that the Irish question was “a dead quarrel for which neither the country nor the [Conservative] party cares a damn, outside of Ulster and Liverpool”. Lloyd George’s view of “this wretched controversy” (that is Ireland) was “Let us settle it in order to get rid of it. Has another generation to pass away in wretchedness? Not if we can help it.”
The post-prandial Pall Mall joke (or maybe it was invented by Sellar and Yeatman in 1066 And All That – who knows?) that the Irish change the question (the “Irish Question”) whenever the British are close to answering it is at least half-true. The Irish have changed the question alright, but it would be hard to conclude that this was to spite British generosity and receptiveness. The immediate post-union question was Catholic emancipation, which took decades to be progressed. Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal movement was rejected out of hand, and by 1870 the question was home rule. Tragically, that best-of-both-worlds-type option wasn’t delivered at a time when it might have kept everything on a peaceful and constitutional tramline towards an organically evolving future. When eventually enacted, it came too late to be operated. Maybe nationalists of today should thank the Tory majority in the Lords for blocking it, because the unintended consequence of that logjam was to change the question into one of an independent republic. History repeating itself ‑ in the debate on the Protocol Bill, Colum Eastwood suggested that in what he called the “new Ireland” there would be statues to Boris Johnson and members of the DUP, for in effect inciting Irish reunification by their mishandling of Brexit.
Even after independence for the twenty-six counties, the British only allowed a tightly defined dominion status, which by degrees was loosened by the Irish. The demand then became one of civil rights for nationalists in the North in response to sectarian unionist misrule, and the lack of a British response to that led republicanism to escalate the question into terror, alongside loyalist and state terror, and ultimately into bringing the war to the mainland. (British and unionist culpability through discrimination and inaction doesn’t take from the primary responsibility of the republican, loyalist, and state authors of terror of course.)
After a successful peace process, the constitutional question of Irish vs. British remained on the horizon, but a good way in the distance. But undelivered promises on rights and equality led to an escalation of demands and fed into a huge Irish cultural revival throughout the thirty-two counties. In the nearly twenty years since the Official Languages Act in the South, the Irish language has developed a visibility and momentum that was previously barely imaginable. Insofar as history repeats itself, we are now at a point in the cycle equivalent to the 1890s, after the foundation of Conradh na Gaeilge but before the crucial constitutional showdown. When Bogdanor wonders if the demand for home rule might have faded away, I think this is very unlikely, given the huge impact of the Gaelic Revival on national sentiment and the huge concentration of focus on Irish identity in a variety of forms, from sport, music and art to the formation of the National Theatre.
The ultimate question-change was that of 2016 when the constitutional dilemma for Northern Ireland became not the dreary Irish vs British debate, but whether to consensually rejoin the EU as part of a reunited Ireland or to be outside unwillingly as part of a fractured kingdom. Again, that’s the British changing the question, not us.
But Irish attempts to psychoanalyse the English need to come from a place of sympathy. Brexit licenced a great deal of Irish fist-shaking against Britain generally and England specifically. Bogdanor records Horace Plunkett’s view in 1899 that Irish hostility to Britain “recurs like malarial fever”. This remains true unfortunately. But the flaw in the malarial approach, particularly regarding Brexit, is that people who complain about English nationalism rarely have a problem with Irish nationalism. For more detail on this problem, it would be hard to improve on John Wilson Foster’s review in the drb (https://drb.ie/articles/whats-hecuba-to-him/, March 2019) of Fintan O’Toole’s book on Brexit. Ultimately though it’s not Brexit itself that is the biggest problem – that’s the UK’s “sovereign choice” (one small piece of the lamentable Protocol Legal Position paper that we should all be able to agree with) ‑ it’s the way they went about it.
Asquith had the emotional intelligence to have the last word for the English on the Irish: “Aren’t they a remarkable people … and the folly of thinking that we can ever understand, let alone govern them.”
I thoroughly enjoyed, and wholeheartedly recommend, the book under review. Any small quibbles? Only one worth mentioning – just a couple of sentences when Bogdanor strays from history to comment on the Good Friday Agreement:
Partition was not, however, to be accepted by the Nationalists until the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998, in which the Irish Republic accepted that Irish unity could not be achieved until a majority in Northern Ireland consented to it. This agreement yielded a retrospective mandate for partition and retrospective legitimation of the solution so tortuously reached by 1914, a solution which recognised, as far as was possible, the right of self-determination of both Nationalists and Unionists. Partition indeed appeared inherent in the very nature of the Irish problem.
I don’t think one could conclude that partition wasn’t “accepted” by nationalists until 1998. Partition is built in to the legal title deeds of the Irish state in the 1921 Treaty, still in force in international law. It was reflected in the 1922 constitution (there may be a confusion here because anti-Treaty nationalists didn’t support that, but the pro-Treaty nationalists that did were the majority). Although the 1937 Constitution attempted a dilution of the position for the purposes of Irish law, that was more apparent than real and made no difference either to the international law position or in day-to-day reality, because of the rider that Irish law would not apply to the North “pending the re-integration of the national territory”.
The principle that reunification would in practice require the consent of a majority in the North was articulated at Sunningdale in 1973 and repeated since then, including at treaty level in Article 1 of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985. That’s before we get to the point that there is no real acceptance anyway – nationalism actively seeks to end partition: that’s its raison d’être.
So to repeat – insofar as the constitutional amendment of 1998 marks a reflection of the 1973 and 1985 agreements among others and a return to the pre-existing 1922 constitutional recognition of partition as well as an alignment with the international legal position all along, one can indeed legitimately call it an “acceptance” in that limited sense, but it certainly wasn’t the first acceptance. Possibly what Bogdanor means here is that 1998 was the first acceptance of partition in any sense by republicans specifically – that might be a legitimate point, but it’s not true of nationalists generally.
Secondly, one would have to question the meaning or value of claiming the Agreement as a validation of some specific previous historical perspective, other than that of compromise and negotiation more widely (“Sunningdale for slow learners”).
The 1998 agreement is best viewed as a bid for a common future, not a common past. Each participant was left to their own historical interpretations and shibboleths. The claim that partition, and the sectarian statelet thereby created, was retrospectively legitimated is hard to swallow because the core elements of the agreement, parity of esteem and protection of rights, totally contradict the discriminatory way that the North was misruled under the settlement enacted in 1920. There are other views as to what was legitimised by the agreement that are equally questionable or more so, such as that the agreement retrospectively validated the republican armed campaign, and their decision to successfully bomb their way to the negotiating table. I wouldn’t accept that either, if it helps.
And finally – the right to self-determination. I appreciate that Bogdanor is using this term in a loose, vernacular, political sense, not as a legal term. But in case of misunderstanding, there is no legal right to self-determination for either nationalists or unionists. In international law, that right vests in Peoples, and the relevant People here is defined explicitly by the Good Friday Agreement as the People of Ireland acting concurrently North and South.
There is no right of unionist consent, no veto, no right of unionist self-determination, in the event of a 50 per cent + 1 vote in both parts of Ireland for reunification. That follows from the black and white terms of the agreement. Self-evidently, a unionist right to consent or self-determine would rig the system permanently, making unity impossible. There would never have been an agreement of any kind under such corrupt rules of engagement. Nobody argues any more that 50 per cent + 1 consent to a United Kingdom illegally thwarts Northern nationalists’ rights to self-determination, so (subject to the 50 per cent + 1 rule) reciprocally a united Ireland can’t illegally thwart any rights of unionists. Self-evidently, unionists don’t have any rights whatsoever beyond those that must be reciprocally recognised for nationalists.
Unionist feelings aren’t more important than nationalist feelings. Unionists’ rights to consent to the state they live in if they can command a majority are not more important or extensive than nationalists’ rights to consent on the same rules of engagement. Both are catered for by inclusive politics under the Good Friday Agreement subject to a tie-breaker of a majority vote on which state to belong to. I don’t know how many times or how many ways one has to say it – it’s called parity of esteem, equality of rights. One can call it good old-fashioned British fair play if that appeals.
Obviously nobody wants these questions to be decided by one vote. Lowering the temperature and maximising the level of agreement and mutual accommodation is the way forward, along with making Northern Ireland work as a neighbourly place to live. Total consensus is impossible by definition. But let’s not pretend that unionists have a right to block unity if and when they end up in the minority. Leave means leave.
Richard Humphreys is a Senior Associate Research Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Legal Studies, University of London, a Visiting Scholar at Queen’s University, Belfast and a Judge of the High Court of Ireland. He writes in a personal and academic capacity. His latest book is Reconciling Ireland (Irish Academic Press, 2021): https://www.irishacademicpress.ie/auth/richard-humphreys/.
We are making some changes at the drb. From 2023 we will publish three times a year. The reduced frequency means we will be concentrating on our core activity, the long-form review essay. The first of the three issues to be published next year will appear in February. Blogs will continue to appear between issues. We wish our readers and contributors a very happy Christmas.