Washington’s Missing China Strategy
To Counter Beijing, the Biden Administration Needs to Decide What It Wants
IN EVERY country in the world Liberal parties are under a cloud; and the belief is widely held that Liberalism has had its day, has served its purpose, and must give place to other political creeds which are more definite in character and can command the support of powerful organized interests.
Is this belief well founded? Has Liberalism exhausted its inspiration? Is there no probability that organized Liberal parties will ever again play the dominant part which they played during the nineteenth century, notably in Britain? These questions deserve examination. But the answer to them must depend upon our definition of Liberalism.
Nine out of ten serious students of politics would agree that, in its great days, Liberalism was mainly identified with three causes or ideals: in the sphere of government, with the establishment of representative democracy; in the international sphere, with the support of demands for national freedom; and in the economic sphere, with individualism and laissez faire.
All these ideals seem now to be out of date, or out of fashion. Democracy has almost everywhere been established, and has almost everywhere brought disillusionment. It ought to act as a sieve to sort out the best leaders; it ought to create a universal sense of civic responsibility; and hitherto it has failed to do either of these things. On the contrary, its machinery is easily and almost universally worked or rigged by organized interests. Nationalism has come to be regarded as a vicious principle, which threatens to bring civilization down in ruins. Individualism is no longer a fashionable creed; the doctrine of laissez faire is all but universally regarded as a false doctrine; and in the economic sphere the conflict of the future, and indeed of the present, seems to lie between two forms of centralized control -- on the one hand, control by gigantic and almost irresponsible combines, linked together by the power of finance, which is today everywhere dominant; and on the other hand, the control of all economic activities by the state, which is the ideal of Socialism. In this conflict there seems to be no place for Liberalism; the economic ideal commonly attributed to it seems to be even more out of tune with the age than its traditional governmental and international ideals.
It is true that in the nineteenth century Liberalism might fairly be described as aiming at the threefold goal of democratic government, national freedom, and economic individualism. But it is not true (as we shall presently see) that this was ever an adequate description of the Liberal outlook, and it is far less adequate today than it was in the past. Liberalism is a state of mind, not a rigid body of doctrine; and its immediate aims must always be determined by the circumstances of the time. Even in regard to the threefold aim already described, a vast deal remains to be done before democracy can be made effective, national freedom secure, or individual economic freedom really established.
Democratic government has been nominally established in almost every country; it is a reality in almost none. "Government by discussion and agreement" cannot be effectively carried on unless (a) all solid bodies of opinion in the country attempting this difficult experiment are effectively represented; unless (b) men of independent minds can take part in the discussion; and unless (c) the representative body in which the discussion takes place has some degree of real control over the processes of government. These conditions are not satisfied fully in any modern country, and they are negatived in those countries (such as Britain and America) which cling to the artificiality of a two-party system, and which make the choice of their representatives in single-member constituencies. Everywhere rigid party organization and party discipline inhibit free discussion, because they limit the electors to a choice between rival cut-and-dried "platforms," in the framing of which they have little or no voice; and this limitation is obviously most severe under a two-party system, which confines the elector to a choice between two programs and two caucuses, neither of which may command his assent. Party discipline, especially in single-member constituencies, denies any opportunity to men of independent minds, since only the loyal party man has a chance either of nomination or of election; for the electors do not vote for men, but for parties.
Most of the countries of continental Europe have attempted to qualify these defects of the representative system by schemes of "proportional representation," abolishing the evil of the single-member constituency; but the form of proportional representation which they have adopted tends to emphasize rather than to qualify the power of the party caucus. In Germany, for example, each party gets a member for every 60,000 votes given to it. But the members thus elected are taken from a party list, drawn up by the party caucus; and only a docile party man will be placed high enough upon the list to have a chance of election.
Even more serious than the stultification of the electoral system is the reduction of the representative body to impotence. This has been carried farthest in Britain, where the party in power is held to have the right of sending about its business, by means of a dissolution, a parliament which dares to exercise any independent jurisdiction in legislation, administration or finance. The British system of government is now, in the main, a system of dictatorship by the party that can secure a parliamentary majority (which seldom represents a real majority in the country); and, since the cabinet through which this dictatorship is exercised cannot possibly attend to a hundredth part of the business for which it has assumed responsibility, there has grown up, under its shadow, a very powerful bureaucracy, which is the operative factor in the modern British system. The main distinction between this system and the systems of Italy and Russia is that in these countries the dictatorship of a single party is made permanent by force, and by the suppression of criticism; whereas in Britain criticism is still free, and party dictatorship is qualified by periodical oscillations between violently opposed extremes. In some other European countries, where there are a number of parties representing various shades of opinion, no one party ever has a clear majority or can wield dictatorial power; and the politicians are therefore forced to aim at the greatest common measure of national agreement. This is an approximation to real democracy; and it works well enough, for example, in the Scandinavian countries.
It is clear that much remains to be done before democracy can be made real and efficient. The electoral system has to be recast, so as to ensure that every powerful body of opinion may receive adequate expression, and that every elector who takes his civic responsibilities seriously may feel that his vote counts. The dangerous dictatorship of the Cabinet has to be restrained, and the ultimate control of the representative body restored. The immense machinery of bureaucracy, which is essential in every modern state, has to be brought under efficient criticism and control. Unless these things can be done, the state must become the plaything of rival organized interests. The task of Liberalism in the creation of a system of government by discussion and agreement is still far from being accomplished.
Nationalism -- the second of the ideals of nineteenth century Liberalism -- has fallen into disfavor with progressive minds because its excesses have been the main cause of the world's troubles in the post-war era. But it remains true that the national type of state -- the state whose limits are determined not by the accidents of conquest or inheritance but by the natural affinities of its people -- has been the most fruitful of political inventions. It alone provides the cement that can hold together great aggregates of men in a common loyalty. It alone secures willing obedience to laws that are felt to be the common possession and the common safeguards of all. It alone makes possible the working of self-government, which has never been successful except in nationally unified states. It alone preserves the variety of type which gives vitality to our civilization. The national state has become the essential political unit of the modern world. But national freedom (as we have been learning during the last generation, and especially since the war) cannot be preserved except by international agreement and common regulation; like the freedom of individuals in the state, it can survive only under the shelter of law. Just as the freedom of the individual to live his own life in his own way depends upon the existence of a system of law, enforced by the common will, which can restrain the strong from abuse of their strength at the expense of their neighbors, so the freedom of nations depends upon the existence of a common body of international regulation enforced by a common will. Internationalism, therefore, is not the antithesis but the complement of nationalism; it is the opposite of cosmopolitanism, which dreams of the establishment of a single supreme world-state.
It follows from all this that the unlimited and irresponsible sovereignty which states have asserted during the last four centuries will have to be qualified by common regulation in certain spheres, if national freedom is to be made real; just as the freedom of action of individuals has to be restricted for the sake of the freedom of other individuals. It was but slowly that this conception came to be accepted. The first important statement of it by a practical statesman of eminence was that given by Gladstone in his remarkable analysis of the principles of foreign policy set forth in a speech at West Calder during his first Midlothian campaign. Since then, the necessity of common international regulation as a means to the security of national freedom, and the necessity of some limitation of state-sovereignty by agreement -- first in the sphere of war and armaments, now also in the sphere of money and trade relationship -- have become important elements in the Liberal policy; and in all countries it is among Liberals (whether they are grouped in organized Liberal parties or not) that the international movement finds its strongest support. The belief in national freedom, which is the second characteristic element in nineteenth century Liberalism, has by no means weakened, but has changed its form: today its aim is to bring the freedom and security of all nations, small as well as great, under the protection of law by the creation of an organized international system. We are only at the beginning of the campaign for the securing of the Liberal aim in this sphere, and a difficult course has to be steered between the narrow and short-sighted nationalism which refuses to submit to any limitation of national sovereignty, and the cosmopolitanism which in its impatience of the evils brought by this unbridled nationalism refuses to be content with anything short of a sovereign world-state or super-state. Clearly, in this sphere, the work of Liberalism is by no means yet accomplished.
The economic individualism which is generally supposed to have been characteristic of nineteenth-century Liberalism may well seem to be now beyond recall. But this is only because its meaning has been distorted. In Britain, at all events, the identification of Liberalism with the Manchester school was never sound, except in regard to free trade. The Manchester Radicals were always a small minority of the British Liberal Party even in the days of Cobden and Bright. Gladstone once said, quite truly, that Liberalism had never been identified with the policy of laissez faire, which Asquith once defined as "administrative nihilism." Gladstone himself was the first to propose the nationalization of the railways, and his Irish Land Acts were (for that time) an extraordinarily bold interference with the "rights of property." It was Asquith's ministry which introduced old age pensions, and unemployment and health insurance, as parts of a very bold scheme of social reform whereby the power of the community was brought to the aid of the distressed. In truth, almost the whole of the vast code of social legislation which was enacted during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- including education acts, public health acts, factory acts, companies acts, wage regulation acts -- together with the creation of the immense bureaucratic machine which was necessary to administer them, were due to Liberal policy. It is therefore not merely misleading, but historically untrue, to contend that -- at any rate in Britain -- Liberalism has ever been identified with the barren and negative creed of laissez faire, save in regard to the movement of international trade.
But this is not to say that Liberalism is not an individualist creed. It is fundamentally individualist, in the sense that it believes the state to exist for the service of the individual, not the individual for the service of the state; and that the object of public policy ought to be, not the regimentation, but the emancipation, of individuality. It believes that all human progress springs from individual initiative, and that the aim of state action should be to create the positive conditions within which everyone will be able to make the most and the best of himself in his own way. For this end it is willing to make vigorous use of the power of the community, and often finds itself (from a different angle) supporting the same measures as the Socialist. But its object -- and here comes the main difference between the Liberal and the Socialist -- is not to reconstruct human society in accordance with the preconceived plans of a particular school of thought; its object is to emancipate human personality, and leave it free to work out its own destiny. It conceives of the function of the statesman as being like that of the gardener, who can ensure that the plants under his care get the light, air, water and soil that they need, but cannot alter their essential nature; whereas the Socialist conceives of the function of a statesman as being like that of an architect, who demolishes an old and inconvenient building and erects in its place a new one designed by himself, using as his material dead, uniform bricks. Living human souls cannot thus be used. The Liberal cherishes variety, and distrusts uniformity; his misgivings as to the trend of modern legislation spring largely from the conviction that its whole pressure is in the direction of a mechanical uniformity, and a discouragement, among the mass of men, of initiative and self-reliance.
Nevertheless, the task of emancipation demands a high degree of interference, by way of regulation, with the processes of industry and trade. It cannot be done by the methods of laissez faire. And the need for regulation increases as economic society becomes more complex. This is not a restriction, but an insurance, of liberty; just as the policeman regulating the traffic at the cross-ways makes the roads both freer and safer for the traveller. We are only in the early stages of the long process of piecemeal adjustment which must take place if the industrialized world is to be humane and civilized, giving to all its inhabitants a real chance of making the best of themselves; and the spirit of Liberalism is an indispensable contributor to this process.
The three main aims discussed above, even with the more generous interpretation we have put upon them, cannot be regarded as an adequate expression of Liberalism, which is a way of looking at things rather than a dogmatic creed. The British Liberals have recognized this in a declaration which they recently adopted in their annual representative assembly. Since we are asking ourselves what are the prospects of Liberalism in the new era into which we have passed, it may be worth while to quote a part of this document:
The word "Liberal" means "generous;" and Liberalism is generosity of mind -- a readiness to respect and to uphold the rights of others, whoever they may be, and wherever they may live. Its essence is a love of liberty and a hatred of arbitrary power. It believes in the right of all individuals, and of all natural and spontaneous groups, such as nations, churches, or trade unions, to pursue their own ideals in their own way, subject to such common regulations as may be necessary to secure the same rights for others. Common regulation becomes more necessary as our mutual dependence increases, and is as essential for nations as for individuals. It is the only safeguard for liberty against arbitrary power -- against the brute power of arms, the power of wealth, the power of monopoly, the power of numbers, the power of elaborate organization.
Liberalism believes that self-reliant individual energy is the source of all progress; and its aim is to create the positive conditions which will enable every man and woman to make the most and the best of their own powers. This aim is equally incompatible with a policy which aims at the rigid regimentation of human activities under the control of the state, and with a policy dictated by deference to vested interests, to wealth, and to established privilege.
Liberalism hates war, whether between nations or between classes: meaning by war not merely the clash of open conflict but that dormant state of war in which nations or classes watch one another with jealous suspicion. It loves peace and ensues it: meaning by peace not the mere absence of open conflict, but the settled habit of solving differences either by friendly discussion and agreement, or by reference to some impartial tribunal.
Liberalism regards trade not as a form of conflict between nations, but as a means of conferring mutual benefits. It believes that an unimagined material prosperity would come to the world if the products of all nations were freely interchangeable. Even in the absence of such free interchange, it believes that any nation which will give to its people unrestricted access to all that the world produces will do best for its own people, and for the world at large.
The attitude of mind which is here roughly described -- the conviction that the well-being of each depends upon the wellbeing of all, and the readiness, which must spring from this conviction, to base policy upon the principle of doing as one would be done by -- is surely the attitude of mind which is necessary for the solution of the problems of our time, and which can alone make tolerable that interdependence of the whole world which is the dominant fact of our time. War, and the rancors which spring from war, are necessarily destructive of this spirit; and for that reason Liberalism has always been under a cloud during wars and the periods of painful adjustment which follow them. But it is only by some infusion of this spirit that the evil effects of wars can be overcome. And, indeed, there is some justification for the view that the great periods of Liberal advance have most often derived their impetus from the reaction against the venomous spirit of international embitterment and class-conflict which great wars almost inevitably breed.
This is very clearly exhibited in the history of Britain during the last century. After the Napoleonic Wars, British Liberalism was at the lowest ebb, and the country was suffering dire distress. Fifteen years later, the first Liberal ministry was formed, and a remarkable era of constructive legislation began, which laid the foundations of Victorian prosperity. After the Crimean War, once again, the Liberal forces were disorganized, and there was serious social unrest, with Fenian outrages in Ireland and Trade Union tyrannies in Sheffield and elsewhere. In 1868 came the second Liberal revival, and the second great period of constructive reform. The South African War brought a third period of reaction, social distress, and Liberal weakness. It was followed in 1906 by a great Liberal triumph, and by the third and most remarkable period of constructive legislation, which was interrupted by the Great War.
Is this sequence of ebb and flow likely to be repeated in the period following the Great War? The ebb has duly taken place: the lowest ebb that British Liberalism has ever known. Are there any signs that it will be succeeded by a flood-tide? There are as yet few signs of a revival of the Liberal Party in Britain. But there are many signs that the spirit of Liberalism is winning its way, in spite of the violent "nationalist" reaction of the autumn of 1931. The conversion of the whole nation to the view that German reparations ought to be cancelled, and the conversion of almost the whole nation (outside Government circles) to the view that a drastic reduction of armaments ought immediately to be made, are signs of this influence. The growing misgivings of the Protectionists as to the efficacy of their exclusive and nationalist devices are another sign. Into the speeches of Tory leaders, notably Mr. Baldwin, a Liberal note is gradually creeping.
But perhaps Liberalism may win its way without the aid of an organized Liberal Party? Perhaps its sanative influence may even be more effective if it is not associated with the machinery and the sometimes sordid tactics of a party organization, which must always be striving after power, and not always very scrupulous as to the means by which power is to be attained? A young American attending one of the British Liberal Schools once said that he had come to see whether Liberalism could exist within a Liberal party. His observation was a shrewd one. He felt the truth of the old saying that while an ideal may create an institution, the institution is very apt to stifle the ideal. Churches have gone far to stifle the spirit of Christianity; and it is equally true that the grinding of a party machine, and the temptations of personal interest and ambition which beset party leaders, have often sterilized the ideal which called the party into being. This is preeminently true of the British Liberal Party, which has been compelled, time and again, to shed its leaders in order to keep its soul alive.
But while it is clear that the Liberal spirit may to some extent permeate the other parties, no political creed can exercise any effective influence upon the course of events unless those who share it organize themselves for coöperation, just as no religious creed can make much progress unless it is embodied in a church, even at the risk of ossification. Is there any chance that the British Liberal Party can at this date recover its strength sufficiently to be the medium through which the Liberal spirit can exercise its due influence? The question cannot be answered without a careful analysis of the political situation in Britain today.
The financial crisis in the autumn of 1931 brought about a profound upheaval in British politics, and is likely to lead to a great change in the alignment of political forces.
In the first place, it very deeply discredited the Labor Party, whose power had grown so rapidly since the war and which had drawn away a large proportion of the support that used to be given to the Liberal Party. In the two and a half years 1929-1931 it had achieved nothing at all, except a thoroughly vicious coal bill and an ill-considered addition to the scale of relief for unemployment. It had disappointed its own supporters by its total incapacity to understand or to grapple with the economic evils from which the country was suffering. The utter barrenness of the Labor Government was not due to the fact that it had no parliamentary majority: for any vigorous and intelligent policy it could have counted upon the Liberal Party, which incessantly urged it to greater boldness. Its weakness was in fact mainly due to its own inherent defects: to the low intellectual quality of its leaders, to its subservience to the dictation of the Trade Unions (which was in its turn the reason why men of first-rate power could not rise to leadership in the party), and to the rigidity of the Socialist formula which it had adopted. The majority of the party's adherents were not really Socialists at all: the most powerful among them were merely Trade Unionists who wanted to extend their own power, while the salt of the party consisted of impatient radicals (in the English sense of the word[i]), who had left the Liberal Party because of its impotence. The small group of bewildered Socialists who really believed in their impracticable creed were merely a source of weakness, because their incessant angry complaints of the futility of the party made its supporters unhappy.
When the financial crisis suddenly became urgent in July 1931, the ineffectual leaders of this bewildered party lost their heads. They did not know what to do. They had no clear ideas at all. They knew that drastic economies must be made to balance the budget; but they would not consent to reduce the payment for unemployment, fearing the electoral unpopularity of this proposal. Finally, the majority of the Cabinet ran away from their responsibility, hoping perhaps to derive electoral advantage from the unpopularity of the cuts in wages and "doles;" and the National Government was formed, with the support of the whole of the Conservative and Liberal Parties, and a remnant of the Labor Party, including its best-known and most experienced leaders.
The Conservatives, who formed the great majority of the supporters of the new government, saw in this situation an extraordinary chance of imposing upon the nation their favorite nostrum of protection, and at once began to clamor for an immediate election -- a clamor which certainly, at the moment, intensified the financial difficulty by the uncertainty which it created, and helped to drive the country off the gold standard. They calculated that protection would be carried by a side wind, under cover of an appeal for national unity; and they believed that a large part of the nation could be persuaded that the difficulties of the time were due to free trade, though the greatest protectionist countries were involved in even greater difficulties, and that tariffs, which are the main cause of the world's troubles, would provide a certain cure for them. These calculations were fully borne out by the event. Supported by the eagerness of the Labor Ministers to destroy their recent colleagues, they got their way; the election of 1931 was precipitated, and the "National" Government returned with the support of a vast majority so overwhelmingly Conservative and protectionist that thenceforward it became a "Nationalist" Government.
In the election campaign every effort was made to convince the electors that the whole crisis was due to the misgovernment of the Labor Party; and the bulk of the electors, who never look beneath the surface, and who were carried away by a flood of panic and patriotism, readily accepted this view. It was, of course, wholly absurd and unjust. The crisis was due in part to the state of world trade, and in part to the dangerous facility with which British financiers had advanced money to Central Europe. In so far as improvident government finance had contributed to unbalance the budget, a far larger share of responsibility belonged to the Conservative administration of 1924-29 than to the puerile Labor administration of 1929-31. But no government caused the crisis: at the most the Labor Government should be blamed for having failed to see that it was steadily maturing during the years 1929-31, and for the ineptitude with which they faced it when it came. Other gross misrepresentations disfigured the campaign; and the result was, that (as a parliamentary force) the Labor Party was almost annihilated, losing all but one of its known leaders, and being reduced to a handful of 50 in a house of 615 members. This result (as is usual in British elections) was out of all proportion to the number of votes cast: over 7,000,000 votes were still given for the Labor Party, a total which included many Liberals and others who feared the results of an overwhelming Conservative victory. The Labor Party paid the penalty of their refusal to accede to the Liberal demand for proportional representation, which would have given them at least 200 seats and secured the presence in Parliament of all their principal leaders. Thus the Labor Party suffered a terrible débâcle, from which it will not easily recover. For a large proportion even of those who remained loyal at the polls were bitterly disillusioned, and voted as they did rather through fear and hatred of a Tory reaction than through confidence in a discredited cause.
The Liberal Party suffered in this election even more seriously than the Labor Party. It is true that on paper they obtained 72 members, and thus outnumbered the Labor Party for the first time since the war. But this result did not represent the real facts. Half of the total were men who had committed themselves to the whole Conservative program and forsworn the principles of their lives in order to be sure of their seats; and most of the remainder held their seats only by arrangement with the Conservatives. In truth, the Liberal Party entered this contest with greater disabilities than any other election in its history. Already broken by the dissensions of its leaders during the preceding decade, and with difficulty reunited, it had now split into three distinct sections. Sir John Simon and Mr. Runciman, with a substantial group of other Liberal members, pledged themselves to support tariffs, or whatever other proposals the government might put forward. They called themselves Liberal Nationals. Another group, headed by Sir Herbert Samuel and Lord Grey, promised support to the government, but proclaimed their continued adhesion to free trade. A third group, with scarcely any parliamentary support, but headed by Mr. Lloyd George, denounced the election as a Conservative plot, and entered into open opposition to the government. As if these divisions were not in themselves a sufficient handicap, the party exchequer was completely empty, so that scores of candidates, many of whom had nursed their constituencies for years, had to be withdrawn. The surprising thing is that any Liberal Party survives at all. Yet in every part of the country there are thousands of devoted Liberals, who are today more enthusiastic than ever in their belief that Liberalism is the only hope of the world.
But the threefold division of the party, created by the establishment of the National Government and the introduction of protection, still continues. And, since the squabbling of Liberal leaders has been the main cause of the disintegration of the party since the war and the main reason why the average voter refuses to take it seriously, this new division is a very grave handicap to the harassed party.
The Simonites have no following at all among the active Liberals in the country. They are, in truth, indistinguishable from Conservatives. They are striving to organize themselves as a separate party; but they can get no Liberal support of any importance, and they will get none but Conservative votes when the next election comes. Yet the fact that they call themselves Liberals, and that their speeches have to be answered by Liberals, is a source of weakness.
The free trade Liberals, who include the great majority of the party throughout the country, have hitherto been divided. A minority of them, in almost every constituency, regarded the election of 1931 as a Conservative stratagem, and (having, in most cases, no chance of voting for a Liberal candidate) gave their votes to the Labor Party. This element had been represented in Parliament only by Mr. Lloyd George and his family, who have from the first declared open opposition to the National Government. But the great majority of Liberals, headed by their official organizations, trusted to the assurances of the Prime Minister and Mr. Baldwin, and gave their support to the National Government; their votes helped to swell the enormous Conservative majority. They are represented by about thirty-five members in Parliament; and their leader, Sir Herbert Samuel, with a group of other ministers, held government positions during its first year.
The position of these Liberals became extraordinarily difficult when the Conservative majority insisted upon a protectionist policy. At first they made compromises; but these were resented by their followers in the country, who were beginning to feel that they had been tricked. When the full protectionist scheme was introduced at the beginning of 1932, the free trade Ministers resigned. In order to preserve the façade of a "National" Government, their colleagues urged them to remain under an anomalous "agreement to differ;" and as the primary purpose for which the National Government had been formed -- the restoration of financial stability -- had not yet been attained, they accepted this arrangement. But their hands were tied: they could not carry on the struggle against protection with full vigor. Moreover, they became jointly responsible for the half-hearted, timorous and wavering foreign policy which the government was pursuing and for the very ineffectual part which it played in the Disarmament Conference. The great body of Liberals in the country, be it remembered, were even more enthusiastic in their zeal for disarmament than in their belief in free trade. As a result, the attitude of Liberals towards the National Government changed during 1932 with great rapidity, first from support to dubiety, then from dubiety to criticism, then from criticism to vehement opposition. When the annual meeting of the party was held in April, it declared with unanimity its complete independence of the government and its freedom from any obligation to support it, and only with difficulty was it restrained from denouncing the Liberal ministers, and persuaded to recognize that the latter must themselves decide how far their support of the government should go.
If the Liberal ministers had remained much longer in the government, nothing is more certain than that they, and the members of Parliament who supported them, would have been repudiated by the party as a whole; and the party would either have been finally shattered, or would have made a fresh start under a new name. The Ottawa agreements averted this danger. The Liberal Ministers found it impossible to support those agreements, which they thought to be in many respects fundamentally vicious, especially in that they created new and dangerous obstacles to the freeing of the channels of world trade. On September 28 they, and Lord Snowden, resigned from the Government; and a new stage in the history of the British Liberal Party began.
Is it likely to undergo a great revival? Can it make itself the rallying point for all the Liberal forces in Britain, which while still very strong, and daily growing in strength, have been unwilling hitherto to identify themselves with a party whose leaders spoke with discordant voices? Can it present itself as an effective alternative to the present régime, in place of the discredited Labor Party? The future of British politics depends upon the answers which time will give to these questions.
The reaction against the present nationalist and conservative régime has already begun. The by-elections show immense decreases in the government vote, though as yet there are no equivalent increases in the opposition votes, because no practicable alternative has yet become visible. The reaction is likely to be very violent: first, because immense expectations have been created, which cannot be fulfilled; secondly, because the huge Conservative majority was created in a moment of panic, and is in any case out of all proportion to the number of votes cast for it, and still more out of proportion to the real balance of opinion in the country.
Three things will add to the violence of the reaction. The first is the inevitable rise of prices, and especially of foodstuffs, which the new tariff system must cause. As yet this has been masked by the continued fall of world prices; but when world prices begin to rise, all the blame is likely to be laid upon the tariffs, especially in a time of acute distress.
The second is the increase of unemployment. The unemployment figures fell simultaneously during the first six months of the National Government, as the result of the departure from the gold standard. But since the tariffs were imposed, unemployment has very rapidly increased, and the figures are now higher than they have ever been. They are being further increased by a restrictive policy of fierce economy, which is closing down almost all public works at a time when capital can find no outlet. A dismal winter lies ahead of us; and already there are evidences of the violent feelings that prevail among the armies of the unemployed.
A third fomenter of reaction will be the imperial policy of the present government. If it is found (as it will be) that the new burdens imposed upon the mass of the British people at the behest of the Dominions are altogether out of proportion to any advantages to British trade which the Dominions concede; if it is found that these agreements stand in the way of agreements for freer trade with foreign countries; and if it is realized that the British Parliament has been deprived of freedom to reduce some of its own taxes without the consent of the Dominions; then, the protest is likely to be so violent as even to endanger the unity of the Empire.
Finally, reaction will be intensified unless the Government shows far more courage in the pursuit of peace and disarmament than it has hitherto done. The peace movement in Britain is immensely strong. It is being realized that Britain, even more than other countries, can never again hope for safety except under the protection of a collective system of peace, and that we ought to advocate and be ready to accept the maximum degree of disarmament for which agreement can be obtained. If the Disarmament Conference fails, the failure will certainly intensify the reaction against the present régime.
It is possible (though not, in this country, likely) that the reaction may be so violent as to assume a revolutionary character: a continuance of the present merely restrictive system might easily lead to such a result. In that event, the Labor Party would return to power, in a much more revolutionary temper than it has hitherto displayed. The safeguard against this possibility would be an effective rehabilitation of the Liberal Party.
But if this is to happen, the Liberal Party would not stand merely for the academic doctrine of free trade and for nothing else. It must, of course, uphold the view that when the channels of trade are clogged, so that the world's abundance cannot reach those who need it, what is called for is the emancipation of trade, not its further restriction. But its fiscal doctrine must be only an aspect of its teaching as to the relation of Britain to the rest of the interdependent world. The new Liberal Party must have, above all, an international outlook: it must base its whole policy upon the recognition and acceptance of the fact that no country can ever again hope to obtain either prosperity or security at the expense of its neighbors, or by its own efforts alone, but only by international coöperation. It must be quite unwavering in its loyalty to the collective system. It must make it clear to the whole world, beyond the possibility of question, that it is prepared to advocate and to accept the maximum degree of disarmament for which agreement can be obtained, and to give up battleships, tanks, submarines, aeroplanes and other weapons entirely, if other countries will do the same. It must be ready to advocate an international regulation of the world's monetary system, and the complete maintenance of the open door in all the dependent territories which Britain controls. And it must have a clear-sighted and courageous policy for dealing with domestic problems, sharply in contrast with the policy of mere negations and restriction which is all that the present régime can propose.
The British people have shown a marvelous capacity for sacrifice; rightly led, they have an equal capacity for constructive effort, and they are thirsting for sound leadership. If the new Liberal Party is to be worthy of its opportunity, it must be ready to show what can be done, and what ought to be done, to increase the country's efficiency in all spheres, to remove its crying evils, and to fit it to play its part as a member and a leader of the interdependent world. The cry of the day is for economy, a cause with which Liberalism has always been identified; but economy does not merely mean abstention from spending; it means the wise use of resources. The war against waste must be merciless. But the worst and the cruelest waste is the waste of manhood which results from a policy of mere negation and restriction; and even wealth runs to waste when, by the inhibition of effort on the plea of economy, capital is left without adequate outlets. The fact that the British Government can obtain huge sums at 2 percent is not merely a proof that its credit is good; it is a proof that a restrictive policy is depriving capital of possible fruitful outlets.
If the British Liberal Party can forget its dissensions, if it can produce leaders of real courage and ability, and if it can lay before a disheartened and bewildered people a plan of action which is inspired by sound thinking and clear knowledge, and which can help to dissipate the miasma of listless depression that overhangs the world -- then, indeed, in face of the bankruptcy of mere nationalism and restriction, it has before it a very wonderful opportunity of helping Britain to save herself by her own efforts and to save the world by her example. But leadership of superlative power, imagination and magnanimity is demanded. Will it be forthcoming?
[i] A radical in England means one who wants to get to the roots of things; in America the word seems to mean one who wants to pull things up by the roots.