Tuesday, May 24, 2011

War and change

David Brooks writes in the New York Times from London reflecting on British history  --

In 1920, Winston Churchill’s mother held a dinner for M. Paul Cambon to celebrate the end of his 20 years as the French ambassador to Britain. One of the guests asked Cambon what he had seen in his two decades in London.  “I have witnessed an English revolution more profound and searching than the French Revolution itself,” Cambon replied. “The governing class have been almost entirely deprived of political power and to a very large extent of their property and estates; and this has been accomplished almost imperceptibly and without the loss of a single life.”

Buried in that answer is a picture of how politics should work. Britain faced an enormous task: To move from an aristocratic political economy to a democratic, industrial one. This transition was made gradually, without convulsion, with both parties playing a role.

The problem is that the period 1900-1920 includes World War I.  Now you can still make the claim that the political system showed remarkable stability given the convulsions around it, but to isolate a highly militaristic 20 years of British history and claim it as an example of progressive domestic political change is a stretch.  Indeed the War itself was a contributor to those changes, through increasing the role of government, mobilizing more people into the workforce, and undermining the faith in the elite that had made such a shambles of the war. 

And of course the War was critical to Britain's relationship with Ireland, necessitating yet another qualifier on 1900-1920 as a period of peaceful revolution.  Finally, that's a cagey reference of Brooks to "both parties" because in Britain (again ignoring Ireland), there were three: Conservative, Liberal, and Labour.  Yes Labour was not yet in power, but as a social movement it was already exerting influence.

In short, if you wanted to pick a period of British history as involving constructive political quarreling, you could do better.

No comments: