“The Age of Decadence, Britain 1880 t0 1914” by Simon Heffer is an ideal book to have tackled during the Covid 19 lockdown.
It consists of almost 900 closely typed pages, and covers every aspect of this eventful period, from the rise of organised labour to naval rearmament, from the campaign for votes for women to that for Home Rule for Ireland.
An overriding political constraint on elected governments in this period was the veto the unelected and unrepresentative House of Lords had on all legislation. A Crisis over this had been avoided for many years by the Lords exercising restraint in its use of the veto. Once the Liberal Party came to power in 1905, a clash between the Commons and the Lords was inevitable.
The crisis came in the 1910 to 1914 period, as a result of a combination of two phenomena.
The first was the fact that the Irish Party, demanding Home Rule, held the balance of power in the House of Commons from 1910 on.
The second was the contents of Lloyd Georges’s budgets of 1909 and 1910, which proposed very progressive taxation (to pay for naval rearmament).
A majority of Lords took violent objection to both Home Rule and the tax policies.
The Lords saw their property in Ireland under attack from Home Rule, and their investments in England under attack from the budget.
They wanted to stop both.
Eventually the King had to threaten to appoint hundreds of new Lords, drawn from the Liberal Party, to overwhelm the Conservative majority in the Lords. This forced the Lords to climb down and pass the legislation. Home Rule became law on 12 September 1914.
But this is a social history as much as it is a political history.
Simon Heffer draws on the novels of authors like John Galsworthy, Virginia Woolf and HG Wells to show how different classes of society inter acted with one another.
I am not sure he justifies the claim in the title of the book that this was an age of decadence.
Certain members of the aristocracy did indeed live idle and extravagant lives, but there were major advances taking place in medicine, housing standards, social welfare. Old Age Pensions and the Social insurance were introduced.
It could be argued that more radical social reform was made by the Liberal government before the First World War, than by the Labour government after Second World War.
People could imagine the future. The writings of HG Wells in this period foresaw many of the technological developments of the following hundred years. Eugenics were advocated by George Bernard Shaw and opposed by GK Chesterton.
Heffer’s book is full of pen pictures of the interesting characters who populated this period of rapid change.
He tells their story well and holds the reader’s interest.