Posts Tagged ‘Lord Acton’

Review: The Liberal Tradition, ed. by Alan Bullock and Maurice Shock

November 6, 2016

(Oxford: OUP 1967)

liberal-tradition-pic

I picked this up in one of the secondhand bookshops in Cheltenham. I am definitely not a Liberal, but so many of the foundations of modern representative democracy, and liberal political institutions, rights and freedoms were laid down by Liberals from the 17th century Whigs onward, that this book is of immense value for the historic light it sheds on the origins of modern political thought. It is also acutely relevant, for many of the issues the great liberal philosophers, thinkers and ideologues argued over, debated and discussed in the pieces collected in it are still being fought over today. These are issues like the freedom, religious liberty and equality, democracy, anti-militarism and opposition to the armaments industry, imperialism versus anti-imperialism, devolution and home rule, laissez-faire and state intervention, and the amelioration of poverty.

Alan Bullock is an historian best known for his biography of Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, which remains the classic work on the Nazi dictator. In the 1990s he produced another book which compared Hitler’s life to that of his contemporary Soviet dictator and ultimate nemesis, Hitler and Stalin: Parallel Lives. The book has an introduction, tracing the development of Liberalism from its origins to the 1930s, when the authors consider that the Liberal party ceased to be an effective force in British politics. This discusses the major issues and events, with which Whig and Liberal politicians and thinkers were forced to grapple, and which in turn shaped the party and its evolving intellectual tradition.

The main part of the book consists of the major historical speeches and writings, which are treated in sections according to theme and period. These comprise

Part. Fox and the Whig Tradition

1. Civil Liberties.

Two speeches by Charles James Fox in parliament, from 1792 and 1794;
Parliamentary speech by R.B. Sheridan, 1810.
Parliamentary speech by Earl Grey, 1819.
Lord John Russell, An Essay on the History of the English Government and Constitution, 1821.
Lord John Russell, parliamentary speech, 1828.

2. Opposition to the War against Revolutionary France

Speeches by Charles James Fox, from 1793, 1794 and 1800.

3. Foreign Policy and the Struggle for Freedom Abroad

Earl Grey, parliamentary speech, 1821;
Marquis of Lansdowne, parliamentary speech, 1821.
Extracts from Byron’s poems Sonnet on Chillon, 1816, Childe Harold, Canto IV, 1817, and Marino Faliero, 1821.

4. Parliamentary Reform

Lord John Russell, parliamentary speech, 1822.
Lord Melbourne, parliamentary speech, 1831.
T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1831.

Part II. The Benthamites and the Political Economists, 1776-1830.

1. Individualism and Laissez-faire

Two extracts from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, 1776.
Jeremy Bentham, A Manual of Political Economy, 1798.

2. Natural Laws and the Impossibility of Interference

T.R. Malthus, Essay on Population, 1798.
David Ricardo, The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation, 1819.

3. Free Trade

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations,
David Ricardo, Principles of Political Economy,
Petition of the London Merchants, 1820.

4. Colonies

Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations.

5. Reform

Jeremy Bentham, Plan of Parliamentary Reform, 1817.
David Ricardo, Observations on Parliamentary Reform, 1824.
Jeremy Bentham, Constitutional Code, 1830.
John Stuart Mill, Autobiography.

Part III. The Age of Cobden and Bright.

1. Free Trade and the Repeal of the Corn Laws

Petition of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce to the House of Commons, 20 December 1838.
Richard Cobden, two speeches in London, 1844.
Cobden, speech in Manchester, 1846,
Lord John Russell, Letter to the Electors of the City of London (The ‘Edinburgh Letter’) 1845.

2. Laissez-Faire

Richard Cobden, Russia, 1836.
Richard Cobden, parliamentary speech, 1846.
T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1846.
Joseph Hume, parliamentary speech, 1847.
John Stuart Mill, Principles of Political Economy, 1848.

Education

T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech 1847.
John Bright, parliamentary speech 1847.

4. Religious Liberty

T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1833.
John Bright, two parliamentary speeches, 1851 and 1853.

5. Foreign Policy

Richard Cobden, parliamentary speech, 1849;
Viscount Palmerston, speech at Tiverton, 1847;
Richard Cobden, parliamentary speech, 1850; speech at Birmingham, 1858; speech in Glasgow, 1858;
John Bright, letter to Absalom Watkins, 1854;
W.E. Gladstone, parliamentary speech, 1857;

6. India and Ireland

T.B. Macaulay, parliamentary speech, 1833;
John Bright, four speeches in parliament, 1848, 1849,1858, 1859;
Richard Cobden, speech at Rochdale, 1863.

Part IV. The Age of Gladstone

1. The Philosophy of Liberty

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, 1859;
John Stuart Mill, Representative Government, 1861;
Lord Acton, A Review of Goldwin smith’s ‘Irish History’, 1862;
Lord Acton, The History of Freedom in Antiquity, 1877.
Lord Acton, A Review of Sir Erskine May’s ‘Democracy in Europe’, 1878.
Lord Acton, letter to Bishop Creighton, 1887.
Lord Acton, letter to Mary Gladstone, 1881;
John Morley, On Compromise, 1874.

2. Parliamentary Reform

Richard Cobden, two speeches at Rochdale, 1859 and 1863;
John Bright, speech at Rochdale, 1863; speech at Birmingham, 1865; speech at Glasgow, 1866; speech at London, 1866;
W.E. Gladstone, speech at Chester, 1865; speech at Manchester, 1865; parliamentary speech, 1866;

3. Foreign Policy

W.E. Gladstone, two parliamentary speeches, 1877 and 1878; speech at Dalkeith, 1879; speech at Penicuik, 1880, speech at Loanhead, 1880; article in The Nineteenth Century, 1878.

4. Ireland

John Bright, speech at Dublin, 1866 and parliamentary speech, 1868.
W.E. Gladstone, two parliamentary speeches, 1886 and 1888.

Part V. The New Liberalism

1. The Philosophy of State Interference

T.H. Green, Liberal Legislation or Freedom of Contract, 1881;
Herbert Spencer, The Coming Slavery, 1884;
D.G. Ritchie, The Principles of State Interference, 1891;
J.A. Hobson, The Crisis of Liberalism, 1909;
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911;

2. The Extension of Democracy

Herbert Samuel, Liberalism, 1902;
Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at Plymouth, 1907;
D. Lloyd George, speech at Newcastle, 1909;
H.H. Asquith, speech at the Albert Hall, 1909.
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911.

3. Social Reform

Joseph Chamberlain, speech at Hull, 1885, and Warrington, 1885;
W.E. Gladstone, speech at Saltney, 1889;
Lord Rosebery, speech at Chesterfield, 1901;
Winston S. Churchill, speech at Glasgow, 1906;
D. Lloyd George, speech at Swansea, 1908;
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911;
Manchester Guardian, leading article, 8th July 1912;

4. The Government and the National Economy

H.H. Asquith, speech at Cinderford, 1903;
Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at Bolton, 1903;
D. Lloyd George, speech at Bedford, 1913, and speech at Middlesbrough, 1913;
L.T. Hobhouse, Liberalism, 1911.

5. Imperialism and the Boer War

Sir William Harcourt, speech in West Monmouthshire, 1899;
J.L. Hammond, ‘Colonial and Foreign Policy’ in Liberalism and the Empire, 1900;
J.A. Hobson, Imperialism, 1902;
Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at Stirling, 1901.

6. Armaments

Sir H. Campbell-Bannerman, speech at London, 1905;
William Byles, parliamentary speech, 1907;
Sir E. Grey, two parliamentary speeches from 1909 and 1911;
Sir J. Brunner, speech at the 35th Annual Meeting of the National Liberal Federation, 1913.

7. Foreign Policy

House of Commons debate 22nd July 1909, featuring J.M. Robertson and Arthur Ponsonby;
Sir E. Grey, two parliamentary speeches, 1911 and 1914;
House of Commons debate, 14th December 1911, featuring Josiah Wedgwood and J.G. Swift MacNeill;
Manchester Guardian, leading article, 1 August 1914;

Part VI. Liberalism after 1918

1. The End of Laissez-faire

J.M. Keynes, The End of Laissez-Faire, 1926;
Britain’s Industrial Future, the Report of the Liberal Industrial Inquiry, 1928;
J.M. Keynes and H.D. Henderson, Can Lloyd George Do It? 1929,
Sir William Beveridge, Full Employment in a Free Society, 1944.

2. The League and the Peace

Viscount Grey of Fallodon, The League of Nations, 1918;
Gilbert Murray, The League of Nations and the Democratic Idea, 1918;
Manchester Guardian, leading article, 24th June 1919;
J.M. Keynes, The Economic Consequences of the Peace, 1919;
D. Lloyd George, speech at London, 1927;
Philip Kerr, The Outlawry of War, paper read to the R.I.I.A., 13 November 1928;
The Liberal Way, A survey of Liberal policy, published by the National Liberal Federation, 1934.

Epilogue

J.M. Keynes, Am I a Liberal? Address to the Liberal summer school at Cambridge, 1925.

In their conclusion, Bullock and Shock state that Liberal ideology is incoherent – a jumble – unless seen as an historical development, and that the Liberal party itself lasted only about seventy years from the time Gladstone joined Palmerstone’s government in 1859 to 1931, after which it was represented only by a handful of members in parliament. The Liberal tradition, by contrast, has been taken over by all political parties, is embodied in the Constitution, and has profoundly affected education – especially in the universities, the law, and the philosophy of government in the civil service. It has also inspired the transformation of the Empire into the Commonwealth. It has also profoundly affected the British character at the instinctive level, which has been given expression in the notion of ‘fair play’.

They also write about the immense importance in the Liberal tradition of freedom, and principle. They write

In the pages which follow two ideas recur again and again. The first is a belief in the value of freedom, freedom of the individual, freedom of minorities, freedom of peoples. The scope of freedom has required continual and sometimes drastic re-defining, as in the abandonment of laissez-faire or in the extension of self-government to the peoples of Asia and Africa. But each re-definition has represented a deepening and strengthening, not an attenuation, of the original faith in freedom.

The second is the belief that principle ought to count far more than power or expediency, that moral issues cannot be excluded from politics. Liberal attempts to translate moral principles into political action have rarely been successful and neglect of the factor of power is one of the most obvious criticisms of Liberal thinking about politics, especially international relations. But neglect of the factor of conscience, which is a much more likely error, is equally disastrous in the long run. The historical role of Liberalism in British history has been to prevent this, and again and again to modify policies and the exercise of power by protests in the name of conscience. (p. liv).

They finish with

We end it by pointing to the belief in freedom and the belief in conscience as the twin foundations of Liberal philosophy and the element of continuity in its historical development. Politics can never be conducted by the light of these two principles alone, but without them human society is reduced to servitude and the naked rule of force. This is the truth which the Liberal tradition has maintained from Fox to Keynes – and which still needs to be maintained in our own time. (pp. liv-lv).

It should be said that the participation of the Lib Dems was all too clearly a rejection of any enlightened concern for principle and conscience, as this was jettisoned by Clegg in order to join a highly illiberal parliament, which passed, and is still passing under its Conservative successor, Theresa May, legislation which is deliberately aimed at destroying the lives and livelihood of the very poorest in society – the working class, the disabled and the unemployed, and destroying the very foundations of British constitutional freedom in the creation of a network of universal surveillance and secret courts.

These alone are what makes the book’s contents so relevant, if only to remind us of the intense relevance of the very institutions that are under attack from today’s vile and corrupt Tory party.

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Resources for Constitutional History: Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament

March 9, 2014

Parliament Book Cover

Mike over at Vox Political has several times mentioned that there’s a need for books on parliament because of the way the Coalition has repeatedly interfered with it, or ignored it, when MPs have had the audacity to do something it didn’t like. Like demand a cumulative assessment on the impact of the government’s welfare reforms on the poor and disabled. Mike blogged on this live, as the debate was broadcast from parliament. What emerged from that debate was the government’s absolute and complete contempt for those who didn’t agree with it. They sent about three members of the Tory party to defend the government’s policies during the debate, which shows you precisely how far they feel they have to justify themselves to the nation’s elected representatives at Westminster.

I strongly agree with Mike about this issue. The past two decades have seen profound changes to the British constitution. The most obvious of this was Blair’s reform of the House of Lords, which has resulted in a partly appointed upper house. Other changes have been in the way consecutive prime ministers since Blair have begun side-lining or ignoring parliament. Blair’s administration was strongly criticised for the way he reduced Prime Minister’s Question Time to once a week, and appeared to attempt to stage manage his appearances before parliament as carefully as his other, public appearances were choreographed. The most notorious example of the offhand way Blair treated parliament was in his refusal to hold a proper debate in Westminster prior to the invasion of Iraq. Blair’s regime has been described, with more than a little justification, as ‘presidential’, which causes problems as this is a parliamentary democracy. The Coalition have continued this transformation of the office of Prime Minister into a quasi-presidency. This needs to be stopped, and more power restored to parliament as the expression of the people’s political will, and a check to the growing, arbitrary powers of the prime Minister.

Unfortunately, there appear to be very, very few books actually on the shelves of bookshops on parliament. Looking around the ‘Politics’ section of Waterstones, I can’t remember seeing a single book on it. There are any number of books on other, important political issues, such as the situation in the Middle East, Islamic radicalism in the UK, analyses of the structure of British politics, the European Union, the global policies towards the Developing World, analyses of race relations and tensions in Britain, and questions of poverty, entrepreneurship and so on, as well as books on various political philosophies and tendencies, like Neo-Liberalism. But no book could I see on parliament, what is and does.

One book on the subject I did manage to find was Kenneth Mackenzie’s The English Parliament (Harmondsworth: Penguin 1951). Subtitled ‘A survey of the historical development of parliament describing how and why it has come to work in the way that it does today’, it does indeed trace the rise and development of the English parliament from its emergence from the feudal grand conseil of the king’s feudal lords during the Middle Ages and its foundation by Simon de Montfort.

It has the following chapters:

1. A Court Becomes a Parliament, with sections on the feudal nature of parliament and the arrival of the House of Commons;

2. The Commons Become Legislators, with sections on the position of the commons, and petition and bill;

3. Liberty from Tyranny, with sections on freedom of speech, freedom from arrest, and the power to commit;

4. Rules, Clerks, Records, with sections on the early history of procedure, clerks and journals, and the publication of proceedings and debates;

5. Consent to Taxation, with sections on the final establishment of the consent of parliament to taxation, and the Commons’ gain of sole control over taxation;

6. The Ministry Becomes Responsible to the Commons, with sections on early attempts to control policy, and ministerial responsibility.

7. The Commons Represent the People, with sections on the early history of representation, the reform of the electoral system, and the party system;

8. The Modernisation of Procedure, with sections on procedural reform, 1800-72, obstruction and disorderly conduct, 1877-88, the pressure of business, and the government takes the time of the House.

10. The Commons Control Expenditure, with sections on the history of the attempt, and the modern system;

11. Parliament Delegates Power to Make Law;

12. The Second Chamber, on the House of Lords, which has sections on its composition, its financial and legislative powers, and its jurisdiction.

There is also a concluding chapter 13, The Secret Garden of the Crown, which assesses it history and considering some of the problems facing the future of parliament.

Each chapter is prefaced with a suitable quotation from that age’s leading politicians and constitutional theorists. The two quotes for the first chapter on the origins of parliament give a very good summary of its feudal origins and the role they have played in keeping Britain free from tyranny. The first is by the great 19th century Liberal constitutional historian, Lord Acton. Acton said

The one thing that saved England from the fate of other countries was not her insular position, nor the independent spirit nor the magnanimity of her people – for we have been proud of the despotism we obeyed under the Tudors, and not ashamed of the tyranny we exercised in our dependencies – but only the consistent, uninventive, stupid fidelity to that political system which originally belonged to all the nations that traverse the ordeal of feudalism.

Acton was an ardent advocate of constitutional liberty and an enemy of absolute tyranny. It was Lord Acton who coined the phrase, ‘power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

The second quote comes from the Anglo-Norman legal writer, Bracton. Bracton was one of the magistrates responsible for founding the British common law tradition, in which law is influenced not just by abstract legislation, but also by custom and precedent. This quote runs

Moreover, the King has over him a court, that is to say the earls and barons; for the earls, as their name (comites) implies, are the companions of the king, and he who has a colleague has a master.

The word ‘comites’, which is translated as ‘earls’ in the above passages, is the origin of the modern English word ‘count’. it comes from the Latin word comes, companion. This became a technical term for a very senior Roman governor, as it stood for someone, who was the companion of the emperor.

That passage shows how, even during the Middle Ages when kings had massive powers and could rule for years without calling parliament, there was nevertheless a feeling that there were constitutional checks to the power of the monarch. Indeed, after John’s defeat by the barons at Runnymede and the issuing of the Magna Carta, there appeared a saying in Norman French. Translated into modern English, this read ‘This is the Commune of England, in which everyone has his own opinion’. ‘Commune’ was the term used in the Middle Ages for a town, which had acquired the freedom to govern itself. It’s a classic summary of English political liberty as it has descended from the Middle Ages. The monarchy has gradually been the subject of even further checks, so that they liberty of people under parliament has grown since the time that was uttered. Unfortunately, the Coalition are doing their level best to undermine it.

The book is very dated, but nevertheless it gives a good introduction to parliament in England. We need more books like this as parliamentary procedure is increasingly attacked under the guise of reform.