BOOK REVIEW / Liberal values: property, elitism, authority: 'The Rise and Fall of Liberal Government in Victorian Britain' - Jonathan Parry: Yale University Press, 30 pounds

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The Independent Online
ACCORDING to Jonathan Parry, liberalism was the dominant political force of Victorian England. Between 1830 and 1886, what he calls the 'coalition of anti- Conservatives' - Whigs, Reformers and Liberals - ruled the parliamentary roost for all but a dozen years. They lost only two of 14 general elections. Yet, claims Parry, 'the Conservative Party was always a more coherent force, more homogeneous, less independent- minded and more amenable to central direction and organisation'.

The Liberal ascendency was, then, an astonishing achievement and one that has been too little analysed. Parry's self-imposed task is to fill the gap by identifying the components of 'classical' liberalism. They are likely to prove an embarrassment to modern liberal democracy, which holds almost all of them in greater or lesser degrees of contempt.

The liberalism of which Parry writes was an unashamedly elitist and 'national' phenomenon, believing in the rule of the virtuous, the rational and the educated. Its task was to facilitate the emergence of such people, so that, eventually, they could play their part in the parliamentary - if not the democratic - process.

Parry's contention is that the aim of classical 19th-century liberalism was 'to offer authoritative but well-regulated government . . . by a propertied but socially diverse, rational and civilised elite . . . winning the confidence of the politicised nation'.

Victorian Liberals, he stresses, believed in property - industrial property as well as land, but property just the same. They felt that possession of property imposed duties as well as bestowing a right to rule. And they saw themselves as representing a natural harmony in society, while the Conservatives were perceived as being no more than a coalition of vested interests.

Then - 'how sudden and how dramatic' - came the Liberal split of 1886. It was provoked by Gladstone's commitment to Irish Home Rule. For Parry, this was a surrender to 'demagoguery and popular enthusiasms' by a party whose historic role had been to keep the lid on such waves of enthusiasm. From then on, according to Parry, a great party of government degenerated into 'a gaggle of outsiders'.

The new sectional interests were inspiring, 'but they lacked the breadth to hold the centre ground'. The Conservatives and the breakaway Liberal Unionists expropriated the classical liberal belief: that government should be carried on in the national interest by 'individuals of wisdom, flexibility and rounded character . . . steeped in the Parliamentary culture'.

In contrast, the Liberals could be presented as having built a sectional political machine, an alliance in which Liberal constituency activists could dictate to the party in Parliament, their views subject only to the autocratic will of their leader, Gladstone. 'Political popery' was the stinging phrase invented to describe this supposedly un-English mix of populism and autocracy.

'British history to 1914 shows that the 19th-century administrative, propertied, economical, individualist, unionist, 'national' tradition cast a long shadow . . . It is perhaps not accidental that the Conservative (and Unionist) party has been the dominant political force of 20th-century Britain,' Parry concludes.

Unionism may no longer be fashionable, and, in the short run, the Conservative Party looks sick and sleazy. But I would take a small bet that the 'Liberal' tradition Parry describes so well will continue to serve the Conservatives into the 21st century.