The progressive fallacy: Liberals and Labour in 20th and 21st century British politics

David Marquand wrote a book in the late 1980s called The Progressive Dilemma, in which he argued that there was an essential identity of interest between the British Liberal and Labour parties, and that the great tragedy of 20th century politics was that they’d been somehow artificially divided, particularly by the issues of trade unionism and socialism. He suggested that as unions became less relevant to politics, and as socialism appeared to move into the ‘historic’ category, so it ought to be possible for the two parties to come closer together once again. This he suggested was the ‘progressive dilemma’.

I’m interested in looking at this issue of the historical nature of the division between the Liberal and Labour parties, which is of course particularly relevant today in the context of the Liberal / Conservative coalition government. This has been presented by some people as some kind of great innovation, but in fact reflects a much longer-run strain of Liberalism which didn’t seek to be some kind of surrogate social democracy, but which was in fact much more centrist, even right-wing, in terms of political identity.

So the rather tired old debates about the rise of Labour and decline of the Liberal party around the turn of the 20th century, which seemed to resolve themselves into footnotes about whether Stockport was in fact in Cheshire or in Lancashire, are really not what I’m interested in looking at.

But I am interested in the politics of identity and the politics of possibility, and the ways in which people formed and developed their own different political commitments. This isn’t a criticism of Liberals as such, just a recognition that they need to be understood on their own terms as a broad church, and not as surrogate social democrats.

This leads me into a number of different avenues of research at the moment. One of those is a biography of one of the great early Labour leaders, Arthur Henderson (1863-1935), who was a Liberal until his early 40s, but who ended up as one of the founders and leaders of the party, cabinet minister in World War I, Home Secretary and later Foreign Secretary in the 1920s, and Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1934.

It’s also led me into research on the development of Labour politics and its relationship with Methodism around the early part of the 20th century, and the ways in which Methodist identities could be moulded in either a Liberal or a Labour direction.

I’m also involved, with my colleague Professor Richard Toye in History, in editing the diaries of a Liberal MP, Cecil Harmsworth, who was a relative of Lord Rothermere, the founder of The Daily Mail and The Daily Mirror.
Further down the road there might be further collaborative possibilities. We have a lot of expertise at Exeter in these areas and it might be an area where our growing links with Bristol might also come into play.

Ultimately this might all end up with a much broader and perhaps more popular study of the relationship between Liberal and Labour politics in the 20th and early 21st century Britain: showing that the Progressive Dilemma is in fact a Progressive Fallacy, and that there were and are significant differences and divergences between the Labour and Liberal parties.

Posted by Professor Andrew Thorpe, Associate Dean of Research and Knowledge Transfer (College of Humanities)

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