I am not sure how much the title of this book means to an American reader, or what connotations the word “Edwardian” has over here. Edward VII, eldest son of Queen Victoria, ruled Britain and her empire from 1901 to 1910. In the common usage of British people, though, the Edwardian age is always taken — as this book takes it — to encompass not only that reign, but the first four years of the next, up to the outbreak of World War I. That terrible conflict, Britain’s bloodiest war, drew such a thick black line across the nation’s modern history that the years immediately preceding it are forever embalmed in a golden sunset glow of self-assurance and tranquility, the focus of much of the nation’s subsequent nostalgia. One of the most popular television programs ever in Britain was The Good Old Days, which ran from 1953 to 1983 and was simply a weekly re-creation of an Edwardian music hall (that is, vaudeville) variety show. The studio audience supplied its own period costumes and false whiskers and was happy to do so, week after week, for 30 years.
This great collective illusion, the illusion of the long, drowsing Edwardian summer before Armageddon, has withstood all attempts to explode it, the most notable of those attempts being George Dangerfield’s 1935 masterpiece The Strange Death of Liberal England. Far from being tranquil, Edwardian Britain was, Dangerfield showed, racked with strife. Ireland boiled; the army mutinied; suffragettes burned country houses and threw themselves under racehorses; labor unions learned the power of the strike, and the House of Lords forced a constitutional crisis. Every educated Briton has read Dangerfield (Strange Death is still in print today), but it has made no difference. Even the unfoxable George Orwell, with the coldest literary eyes of his generation, drew the Edwardian England of his childhood in fond sepia tones in his novel Coming Up For Air. Cyril Connolly called Orwell “a revolutionary in love with 1910.” In fact, every 20th-century English person was in love with 1910, and a great many still are. The older working-class Englishmen who populated my own childhood, men born in the 1880s and 1890s, grumbled constantly that beer had never tasted as good as it did “before the Great War.”
Well, here is Roy Hattersley with a 500-page survey of Edwardian Britain, taking in everything and everybody. Mr. Hattersley knows his way round the corridors of power pretty well — he was deputy leader of the Labor Party (1983-92) and a minister of state in various capacities. An old-school, raise-up-the-workers Laborite from the north of England — the U.S. equivalent would be Hubert Humphrey — “Hatters,” as he became known in Parliament, might have become prime minister, but he was too far right for the foam-flecked, Thatcher-hating Labor Party of the 1980s and too far left for the brisk, managerial Blairite creation that succeeded it. Instead, he retired to the House of Lords and seeks consolation in writing books.
The Edwardians is, as I said, very comprehensive. Bertrand Russell and G.E. Moore are here; so are Kipling and Yeats, Colonel Younghusband and Captain Scott, Bleriot (first aviator across the English Channel) and Marconi, Dr. Crippen and the Sidney Street siege, Edward Elgar, Jack Johnson, the Titanic, and the Gaiety Girls. Mr. Hattersley must have spent a prodigious amount of time going through old magazines and newspapers. However, in accordance with the Chinese saying that “when he has spoken three sentences, you know his profession,” it is the politics of the period that really engages him, and the heart of this book — the second and third of its five sections — is a detailed account of the political personalities and battles of the day.
The great political event of the period was the election of January 1906. The Conservatives had been in power for a decade, but had lost electoral support in critical areas: over free trade (the issue that caused young Winston Churchill to cross to the Liberals in 1904) and the rights of trade unions. Odd as it seems now, the working-class Englishmen enfranchised in the reforms of 1867 and 1884 had been inclined to vote Tory, on the principle of the top and bottom of society uniting against the middle. The Taff Vale judgment of 1901, however, which declared labor unions to be legal entities that could be sued for damages, thus threatening their existence, alarmed and united the labor movement. The Labor Party was formed, and at the 1906 election returned 29 members to Parliament. From that point on, no radical measures the Liberals were willing to take were ever quite radical enough. Though 1906 was a great triumph for the Liberals — they won 126 more seats in parliament than all other parties combined, a majority not matched until the great Labor victory of 1945 — it none the less marked the beginning of their end.
In its implications and consequences, the 1906 election was therefore one of the most significant events in modern British political history. Mr. Hattersley:
Party politics were taking on a new dimension. Conflicting ideologies were taking the place of rival interests. The trade unions had become a force to be reckoned with. Capital and labour glowered at each other across the House of Commons and the two great parties — Liberal and Conservative — fought out their battles on the factory floor while a third waited, nascent, in the wings.
The infelicity of style there — a factory floor does not have wings — is unfortunately characteristic. Mr. Hattersley, though an amiable fellow and a competent chronicler, is not a gifted writer. I am willing to confess the thing a book reviewer ought never to confess: after a few hundred pages, I did some skimming. And if the level of dry political detail here is more than this ex-Englishman can digest, I am sure it will be too much for most American readers.
I must say, though, that for a lifelong Laborite, Mr. Hattersley gives a very even-handed account of the 1906 Trade Disputes Act, which gave the unions immunity from actions for damages. Tories were grumbling about this act, and blaming it for the nation’s industrial decline, well into the Margaret Thatcher era. Mr. Hattersley persuasively answers the really interesting question arising from the act: Since Asquith’s Liberal government had given the unions what they wanted, why did those unions then desert the Liberals for Labor? It has been traditional to blame Winston Churchill for this. When a strike of Welsh miners got out of hand in 1909, Churchill, then Asquith’s Home Secretary, sent troops in. As the author notes: “For the next sixty years Churchill was regarded in trade union folklore as ‘the man who sent troops to subdue the Tonypandy miners.'” But, there was more than this to the workers’ desertion of the Liberals, as Mr. Hattersley shows. The whole center of gravity of politics in industrial democracies had shifted left — Mr. Hattersley notes the 1905 founding of the I.W.W. in Chicago — and the patronizing “constructive radicalism” of the Liberal Party belonged to the era that was slipping away. Not that a Labor man can let Churchill off the hook completely: “His anxiety to help the poor was moderated by a resentment of their presumption in trying to organize help for themselves.”
Though lacking the sparkle and humor of Dangerfield’s classic, The Edwardians covers much more territory and will prove useful to anyone seeking to understand a momentous period in what still was, for a few years before the apocalypse of 1914, the most important nation in the world.