Photo credit: UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Have we lost our minds?

Our shallow and insincere public discourse pales by comparison to the bitter, but profound, politics of the Edwardian era

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There is a passage in Margot Asquith’s diaries, two months into the Great War, where she registers her shock at how the constitutional crisis that followed the People’s Budget of 1909 had destroyed normal civilised relations between prominent members of the Liberal and Conservative parties: “politicians losing all sight of truth and courtesy, hurling the foulest charges against their enemy and using the ugliest language; cutting, forgetting and trying to oust all their oldest friends; and Society so flippant, callous, idle and blasphemous”.

The Tory-dominated House of Lords had voted for the first time since the reign of Queen Anne to defeat a money bill. A general election provided a mandate for the Bill to pass, but it was also decided to remove the Lords’ right of veto to prevent such a situation happening again. That was when things really turned ugly, when a large group of Tory peers — the so-called die-hards — resolved “to die in the last ditch” rather than to see the veto go. In the end, they had to decide between giving way, or facing the creation of enough Liberal peers to swamp them.

Such was the bad feeling that senior politicians would shun each other at parties and prominent hostesses learned not to invite members of opposing front benches to the same dinners. The deterioration in relations started at the top. Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and a charlatan of Johnsonian proportions, was not merely the architect of the offending budget — a legitimate, if controversial, political act — but also a coarse politician who took great pleasure in rubbing the noses of his opponents in it.

One who took the bait, and who should have known better, was Lord Curzon, who had a claim to be the grandest man in Britain — not excluding the Sovereign. After a campaign of vituperation probably not seen in our politics since the eighteenth century, Curzon — appalled at the prospect of so many non-aristocratic men soiling his aristocratic house — backed down. But memories were long and the hostility between the parties continued: and became even worse after Lloyd George’s premiership, which ended in the showdown at the Carlton Club in October 1922 when the Tories finally had enough of him.

Yet the climate of political life and discourse earlier in the Edwardian period, before political polarisation led to social polarisation, was very different from that initiated by the crisis, and offers many lessons for the even more greatly debased state of contemporary politics. 

Senior politicians did not choose their friends according to their politics. Men of similar class and background mixed cordially; as did men of similar character from different backgrounds. Because they understood and respected each other — and, more importantly, respected the good faith of each other — they could debate fiercely. 

There were outbreaks of animosity, for in any House of Commons it is impossible that personalities will not clash — within parties as well as between them. But generally the sense of purpose, seriousness, conviction and decency of that House of Commons was formidable, and it changed Britain.

Its members were chosen from a very different pool compared with today’s. There were no women, and would not be until 1919. There were two Labour MPs, one of them Keir Hardie, and a few Liberal MPs of humble origins, notably the proto-socialist John Burns. Otherwise, the House was mostly composed of privileged, educated men. However, class and gender were not necessarily relevant to the superior tone of the Edwardian House of Commons. 

Character was, a quality lacking in our present representatives. It might be argued that the difficulty some politicians have in telling the truth, and owning up when they are found out, is the most obvious sign of a lack of character. But there is another: and that is absence of belief, or conviction.

It was common once for politicians to have minds of their own. The fierce division in the Unionist party (as the Tories then termed themselves, in the shadow of the debate on Irish Home Rule) prompted by Joe Chamberlain’s advocacy of Imperial Preference — protectionism instead of free trade — exemplified this state of mind. 

For Chamberlain, his own personal beliefs trumped his loyalty to his party. He had already dumped one party, the Liberals, in 1886 over Gladstone’s first Home Rule Bill. Winston Churchill left the Unionists on the same issue to join the devoutly free-trading Liberals and his numerous biographers have interpreted his actions as indicative of his high principle. 

Even though it may have included an element of calculation (the Unionists were imploding over protectionism), Churchill’s behaviour does appear typical of the conviction politics of the era. 

Although some of his former colleagues detested him for his desertion, that detestation did not really intensify until after the 1909-11 crisis. When he married in 1908, politicians from both sides of the Commons attended his wedding or sent good wishes. Lord Hugh Cecil, one of the most ferocious opponents of the Liberal government in the years to come, was his best man. Churchill signed up willingly to his party’s policy of Irish Home Rule; his other Tory best friend was the militant Unionist, F.E. Smith.

 But then it typified the Edwardian way of politics that people had sincere beliefs. Rather than beliefs articulated from a script written by their research assistants, chiefs of staff, special advisers or shaped and distilled in a thinktank, they formed their beliefs using their intellect and experience, and their understanding of what would genuinely best serve the public. 

What is more, they would fight and argue for these beliefs in a way that did not entail them vilifying the personalities or supposed motivations of those who disagreed with them. This not only meant that, for all the ferocity of argument, they could behave with respect towards each other, but also that the public, in those days reading about the political class in their newspapers, could respect not just them, but the whole political process.

Politicians and the political process are now held in increasing contempt

How unlike today. Politicians and the political process are now held in increasing contempt. This can have terrible consequences: one thinks of the murders, most recently, of the entirely unprovocative David Amess and Jo Cox. MPs report going to surgeries in stab vests and living in fear of attack. Those are extreme situations, but they have grown out of a climate in which other MPs bring the political class into utter disrepute. 

This is not simply through financial irregularities, sexual peccadilloes or the increasingly common problem of lying or refusing to take responsibility for errors. It is because the public realises how little difference there is between the parties in terms of outlook — quite unlike in the Edwardian period — but their similarities are concealed by almost theatrically manufactured outrage, much of it furnished to those who express it by the parties’ teenage scriptwriters. 

Recently, Keir Starmer admitted the problem with the NHS was not that it needed more money poured into it, but that its management needed reform. The Tories have long said that, but have lacked the guts to do anything about it.

Labour does not believe in cutting taxes; neither does the Conservative party. Labour doesn’t believe in selective education; nor is it Conservative policy. Neither party has a coherent plan for social care. Neither front bench will take a lead in crusading for academic freedom or freedom of speech, thus running up the white flag in the culture wars that are poisoning our society. 

And both sides say they accept Brexit: but the Conservatives, shamefully, have done almost nothing in the three years of liberation from the EU to further the deregulatory process Brexit enabled; and Labour has expressed no ideas for what it would do.

This would never have happened in the early years of the last century. Instead of real anger in sincere arguments about making real changes, in which two sides offer a distinct choice to an electorate, we now have a political class deploying fake anger in bogus arguments from which more of the same threatens to emerge, precisely because no genuine choice will be offered. 

Such an outcome is inevitable, one must suppose, when so many mediocrities find their way into politics. There are, as a consequence, too many people without convictions in the House of Commons, trying to conduct what passes for political discourse, on top of the rotten apples who fiddle their taxes or break laws or tell outrageous lies or are rather too hands-on with the younger and more attractive research assistants.

There are profound philosophical differences, of the sort the Edwardians relished, that need to be debated by intelligent people in power and who know how to exercise it, and not left to a grim variant of civil service government.

Where is the argument about cutting taxation and spending across the board? Or the debate about whether, in this intensely dangerous world, we should be spending less on welfare and more on preparing for warfare? How long must we wait before the bullet is bitten on social care, thereby creating the means to plan for the future of the NHS? 

Is there really unanimity among our politicians on the shocking profligacy that is HS2? And what about ending the competition between Labour and the Conservative parties over which can do the better Greta Thunberg impersonation, and instead examine the realities of stopping the sale of petrol and diesel cars by 2030? Climate change policy seems to have become the ultimate example of crucial issues that simply cannot be discussed. 

Would our Edwardian forebears have tolerated such farces? No, of course not: so how stupid are we that we seem happy to do so?

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