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David Brooks's Strange History

[Guest Post by Isaac Chotiner]

In his column about the United Kingdom, David Brooks writes:

Britain faced an enormous task [in the first 20 years of the 20th century]: 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.

Brooks also quotes the French ambassador to Britain, who reportedly stated:

“I have witnessed an English revolution more profound and searching than the French Revolution itself. 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.”

In fact, the transition to a democratic, industrial, modern England that Brooks sketches is almost hilariously sanguine. Britain spent many of these years "convulsed" by great labor unrest and often violent protests (and hunger strikes) over giving women the right to vote (universal suffrage didn't arrive until 1928). Brooks is in one sense right that the transition was made gradually, and for this we can thank all the reactionary forces who saw no need to improve horrific working conditions, or ameliorate slum life, or give women any real power.

The Tories of the era, in contrast to Brooks's picture of bipartisanship, not only did everything they could to put a halt to these developments; they also called on the army to ignore acts of parliament (!) over the question of Home Rule in Ireland. (The Tory leader, Bonar Law, famously remarked, "Ministers who gave that order would run a greater risk of being lynched in London than the Loyalists of Ulster would run of being shot in Belfast.") Brooks also completely omits the fact that the 1920s in Britain were a calamitous time, culminating in a General Strike, a depression, a stupid return to the Gold Standard, and short-sightedness in world affairs. It is distinctly odd that Brooks has chosen to celebrate this era as one of "constrictive competition" where "the system worked."