When the Lamps Went Out

The Great War and the death of liberal England

This summer marks the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. One hundred years ago, in late July of the hot summer of 1914, Europe ignited. The significance of the war for those living today, especially those interested in individual liberty, cannot be overstated.

The four-year conflict left nine million men dead, governments toppled, and ancient monarchies replaced by unstable republics. The United States had become directly active in European affairs for the first time. The twentieth century, Mussolini's “century of the state,” was well and truly underway

By modern standards, the British state prior to 1914 was rather small. In the nineteenth century, the ability of the government to effectively regulate and enforce was limited, not only by widespread support for a general attitude of laissez faire, but also by the lack of a bureaucratic administration that could grease the cogs of a centralized state in the manner of, say, Bismarck's Germany.

This is not to say that a slow aggrandizement of the State was not occurring. Successive enlargements of the franchise, in 1867 and 1884, and the increasing popularity of interventionist political philosophies chipped away at the laissez-faire state of the mid-Victorian years. The transformation of the Liberal Party from actual (classical) liberalism into social liberalism (better described as social democracy) had been completed under the leadership of Herbert Asquith. Slowly, a new Britain was coming into being. The vast British Empire was growing vaster still, as was the revenue required to support it. Even so, at home, Britain was still a remarkably liberal place. Relative to the citizens of most countries in the world, the Englishman could still consider himself free from excessive State interference.

Nowhere, perhaps, is the ensuing change more famously chronicled than in A. J. P. Taylor's English History 1914–1945, where the historian noted that “until August 1914 a sensible, law-abiding Englishman could pass through life and hardly notice the existence of the state, beyond the post office and the policeman” (see chapter 1). As to the particulars of life, Taylor notes that the Englishman could live where and as he liked, without any sort of number or identity card. He could travel abroad without any sort of passport or permit, exchange his money for any currency without any limits and buy anything from anywhere. Conversely, a foreigner could reside in England without a permit and without having to notify the police. No military service was required and the demands of national defense could be ignored. Although some householders could be called upon for jury service, “only those helped the state who wished to do so.” Less than 8 percent of the national income was consumed by taxes. State intervention was limited and existed in the capacity of attempting to prevent the sale of contaminated food and the spread of infectious diseases, imposing some safety limits on factories, limiting the number of hours that men and women could work in some industries and attempting to provide an education for children up until the age of 13, as well as those social liberal measures outlined above.

The essential change wrought upon life by the war was one of the relationship between individual person and the State. The people became, in Taylor's words, “active citizens ... shaped by orders from above.” This meant service to the state, rather than the pursuit of one's own interests. Five million men were conscripted for the war effort. Domestically, the age of central planning had begun. Food was limited and regulated by the State, pub licensing hours were limited, and beer was watered down. Movement and work were restricted and regulated. As news became controlled, so did every part of the minutiae of life, from the brightness of street lights to the time on the clock. Taylor made perhaps the most important conclusion the historian could draw from this strange transformation:

The state established a hold over its citizens which, though relaxed in peacetime, was never to be removed and which the second world war was again to increase. The history of the English state and of the English people merged for the first time.

Nearly all wars serve to aggrandize the State. The First World War just did so to a degree that was hitherto unprecedented. Some did attempt to halt or at least slow the path to destruction. Henry Petty-Fitzmaurice, the Fifth Marquess of Lansdowne, published a letter calling for a negotiated peace with Germany. Rather more farsighted than many in government at the time, he thought the prolongation of the war would “spell ruin for the civilised world.” In this endeavor he was supported by Francis Wrigley Hirst, the Cobdenite Liberal and anti-statist, who drew up an outline for a possible replacement government composed of more old-fashioned liberals than those currently in office. The Lansdowne letter was rejected. The war went its course and Britain, of course, was on the side of the victors. As far as the old concept of the limited state was concerned, both liberals and conservatives lost. Emboldened by the influence they had enjoyed during the war, social and economic planners were ascendant.

In many ways, the Great War represents the destruction of a civilization, the old order, and its replacement with the modern State with its dilatant reach into every aspect of life. Upon the outbreak of war, British Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey is said to have remarked, “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” As a century of relative peace was coming to an end, the lamps really were going out, and with them, the most liberal age the world had ever known.

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