The strange death of liberal England

Jonathan Jones

The Guardian

The current climate crisis shows that even 21st-century science can be trumped by dogma. Or is madness creeping in?

Jacob Epstein's Torso in Metal from The Rock Drill (1913-14)

It should be obvious from my articles that I love history as much as I love art. And I think it’s time to come clean: I am a historian manqué. As a teenager in the 1980s, I spent so much time reading history that I became as pale as a maggot, got spots all over my face … and won a scholarship to Cambridge to study it.

In those far-off days, when Margaret Thatcher faced the enemy within and I sat looking out of a classroom window at a rainswept rugby pitch in Wrexham, one history book I had come across in the public library reached out to me like a blazing vision. It was called The Strange Death of Liberal England and its author was George Dangerfield. In the last few weeks its title has kept ringing in my head.

Dangerfield’s theme is the disintegration of the Liberal Party in Britain before the first world war. But this is no staid parliamentary history, it is a sweeping cultural interpretation of what Dangerfield sees as the death of Victorian rationalism and sobriety. In the 1900s, a wave of new forces conspired to undermine not just the Liberal Party but the optimistic and reasonable view of human nature on which it was based. The fall of liberal reason is one of the themes of the literature of that age, from Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness to WB Yeats‘s 1919 poem The Second Coming:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world

In art, you can see the madness creeping on in Sickert’s paintings and Epstein’s post-human sculpture The Rock Drill.

We seem to be living through the demise of liberal England all over again. The current crisis in climate science is a profound shock to anyone who thought that, for all the cataclysms of the early 21st century, there were some basic values and rationalities that held our society on course. It seems science itself is disintegrating into tit for tat internet accusations and email scandal. Where is human reason if the lines between research, belief and subjectivity disappear?

And where is the liberalism of the New Labour era if it cannot even make a scientific case for environmental action without it being assailed by dogma? We’re now in a realm where the maddest opinions are valid and the most apparently cogent are open to doubt.

The strange death of liberal England has us in its grip.


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