Wednesday, 28 May 2014


The temporary setback of Australian Liberalism as a practical force in politics, primarily owing to the pressure of social democracy ; secondly, because of feeble leadership ; and thirdly, through the insufficiency of the old Liberal faith to meet the conditions of modern life, has driven many men to seek opposite extremes in the realisation of political ideals. Cobdenism, laissez faire, the deification of an abstract individualism that regarded with abhorrence State Intrusion on so-called rights of property, did not fit in with the changed conception of modern thought on the problems of the day. All of us feel that whatever minor shades of detachment may differentiate men from one another two fundamental principles divide human thought. Just as in the physical world  we have light and darkness, and in the domain of morals vice and virtue, so in the great task of government, of directing and joining the popular will to produce the largest measure of human happiness for the collective well being—to make men live together in harmony, to make them strong to resist oppression or disintegration— we have two forces at work—one the genius of progress that walks warily, but surely, forward ; the other the spirit of timidity and hesitation that is for ever eager to pause, pleading that the world has achieved enough, and is only dragged onward with dire misgiving and ominous prophesy of disaster.

Liberalism represents the former of these great ideals. It has of late grown cold, and is in vital need of a tonic to reanimate its jaded energies. Such a stimulus is provided by a little volume entitled "Liberalism," just issued in the Home University Library. The author, Mr. L. T. Hobhouse, is well versed in the theory and practical arts of politics, and his reasoned restatement of the principles and policy of Liberalism should receive the enthusiasm of those whose Liberalism is to them the safest medium of social achievement. All Liberals who have felt a drooping of spirit because of the growth of an excrescence  threatening the destruction of a belief that has done so much for human emancipation, should read the book to see their principles stated with the force and accuracy of a sound thinker, and no one will lay it down without feeling refreshed and inspired to that determined assertion of Liberal ideas which must triumph, not only as against plutocracy, but to the dissipation of those fantastic unrealities which are the nightmare of undigested fact.   

The wane of the Liberal movement at the end of the nineteenth century, as illustrated in numerous defeats in Great Britain and abroad, was not so much a cause of anxiety as the apparently growing sense in the Liberal ranks that the cause had had its day, that its vogue ceased in a previous generation, that it was an extinct form and had been succeeded by organisations of a more complex character, better adapted to the newer order. The imperialist sneered at Liberalism as out of date ; the Socialist bureaucrat despised it as not, being bread and butter. Reaction, Mr. Hobhouse declares, dominated British politics in the years preceding the South African war, but Liberalism awoke after that epoch making crisis, and is, he thinks, now endeavouring to adjust itself to the times. The Gladstonian Liberal is going through a process of adaptation and growth. He has to acknowledge that Free-trade has not solved the problems of unemployment, or underpayment, of overcrowding, or maintaining our commercial supremacy. He is looking deeper into the meaning of liberty and taking account of the bearing of actual conditions on the meaning of equality. As an apostle of peace and an opponent of swollen armaments, he has come to recognise that the expenditure of the social surplus upon the instruments of progress is the real alternative to its expenditure on instruments of war. 

Liberalism has passed through its slough of despond, and in the give and take of ideas with Socialism has learned and taught more than one lesson. The result is a broader and deeper movement in which the cooler and clearer minds recognise below the difference of party names, and in spite of certain real cross currents, a genuine unity of purpose. What are the prospects of this movement, and will it be maintained ? The modern State is a vast and complex organisation. The individual voter feels himself lost among the millions. He is imperfectly acquainted with the devious issues and large problems of the day, and is sensible how little his solitary vote can effect their decision. What he needs to give him support and direction is organisation with his neighbours and fellow workers. By that means responsibility comes home to him, and to bring home responsibility is the problem of all government. The development of social interest, namely, democracy, depends not only on adult suffrage and the supremacy of the elected Legislature, but on all the intermediate organisations, which link the individual to the whole. Mr. Hobhouse adds, and the words should be pondered deeply in Australia, "This is one among the reasons why devolution and the revival of local government, at present crushed in England by a centralised bureaucracy, are of the essence of democratic progress."

Our author does not consider Liberalism inconsistent with Imperialism. The Colonial Empire, as it stands, is in substance the creation of the older Liberalism. It is founded on self-government, and self-government is the root from which the existing sentiment of unity has sprung. The colonies include the most democratic communities in the world. Their natural sympathies are with the most progressive parties in the United Kingdom. There exist accordingly the political conditions of a democratic alliance, which it is the business of the British Liberal to turn to account. He may hope to make his country the centre of a group of self-governing  democratic communities, one of which, moreover, serves as a natural link with the other, common with English speaking people.   

The future of democracy, however, rests upon deeper issues than mere forms. It is bound up with the general advance of civilisation. Nothing of any import affects the social life on one side without setting up reactions all through the tissue. We can not maintain great political progress with out some corresponding advance on other sides. People are not fully free in their political capacity when they are subject industrially to conditions which take the life and heart out of them. A nation cannot be in the full sense free while it fears another, or gives cause of fear to another,  therefore we need to cultivate the spirit of internationalism. Mr. Hobhouse concludes: —"We need less of the fanatics of sectarianism, and more of the unifying mind. Our reformers must learn to rely less on the advertising value of immediate success and more on the deeper but less striking changes of practice or of feeling ; to think more of catching votes and more about  convincing opinion. At present progress is blocked by the very competition of many for the first place in the advance. There again devolution will help us, but what would help still more would be a clearer sense of the necessity of co-operation between all who profess and call themselves democrats, based on a fuller appreciation of the breadth and the depth of their own  meaning."   

 Northern Star 10 August 1911,

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