The myth of the golden years before the First World War, brought to a tragic and unforeseen end by that war’s outbreak, lingers on despite all the evidence produced by subsequent historians to show how dangerously shaky were the foundations of that apparent stability. In 1936 when The Strange Death of Liberal England was published, George Dangerfield’s picture of the years from 1910 to 1914 was startlingly original. It was also astonishingly well written, which was probably one of the reasons why it made very little stir at the time, since so serious a reassessment might not have been expected to find its expression in such apparently genial mockery and in passages of quite such bravura prose.
Here we have the Prime Minister alone on the deck of the Admiralty yacht Enchantress being hastened back from his intended holiday in the Mediterranean because Edward VII has a chill. At three o’clock in the morning he receives by cable the news of the King’s death. He paces the deck, ‘the only visible human being within the ghostly margins of sea and sky’, gazing up at Halley’s Comet ‘which, visiting the European heavens but once in a century, had arrived with appalling promptness to blaze forth the death of a king’. We are immediately drawn into the drama, but we are not allowed to over-romanticize. Mr Asquith is essentially a prosaic character, we are told, as he stands there thinking kindly of the late king, a moderate man, even perhaps extravagantly moderate, but he is going home to face four of the most immoderate years in English history, at the end of which the Liberal Party which he leads with such calm assurance will have been dealt a mortal wound. So we have our plot.
The House of Lords now threatens to veto the budget, industrial unrest reaches unprecedented heights, the Suffragettes become increasingly militant and there is the threat of civil war in Ireland. An oddly un-English, excitable, even neurotic atmosphere
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