A Slight Dash of the Tiresome

Brian Harrison

  • The Blind Victorian: Henry Fawcett and British Liberalism edited by Lawrence Goldman
    Cambridge, 199 pp, £25.00, August 1989, ISBN 0 521 35032 8

Intellectuals – informed people who enjoy accumulating and diffusing ideas – were more prominent in Victorian public life than they are today. Public life was then confined to a well-educated élite, and intellectual activity was less rarefied in language, less specialised in scope, more readily discussed in periodicals designed for general circulation. Politics, literature, religion, scholarship and even natural science all fertilised one another. The cultivated ‘man of letters’, broad but selective in his reading, moulded taste. Universities have subsequently hived off much intellectual activity into academic journals inaccessible to the educated public. They have converted associations such as the British Academy and the Royal Society, where the layman was once made to feel at home, into learned societies. H.A.L. Fisher threatened to resign from the British Academy in 1938 if it refused to recommend Winston Churchill for election: such a decision, he said, would ‘mark the triumph of a tendency towards minute specialisation ... which I have long watched with concern, as likely to rob the Academy of its national character’.

There is also a party-political reason for the intellectual’s retreat: the dispersal of the Liberals to the parties of right and left in the 1920s. Central to the Liberal faith was a belief in broadening the scope of reason in human affairs: the hope that a stable political system and a humane society would somehow emerge from a continuous susurration of public argument and discussion. Mid-Victorian left-wing Liberals saw the intellectual as society’s major safeguard against the bogey they feared: stagnation, the stationary state – what Mill called ‘collective mediocrity’. ‘The great enemy of knowledge is not error but inertness,’ wrote the historian H.T. Buckle. ‘All that we want is discussion, and then we are sure to do well, no matter what our blunders may be.’

In Liberal vision, the lamp of reason blazes forth to scatter the forces of tradition, obscurantism, convention, violence, deceit, formality, Medieval superstition and unearned privilege. Many of these forces were seen as lurking within the Tory Party, described by Mill as the ‘stupid party’. The Mid-Victorian Liberal Party therefore reserved a niche for intellectuals. They were best qualified to think themselves into the minds of others – to show the imaginative sympathy that social harmony required. They would display the impartiality that transcends class and sectarian interest. ‘The ideal of a Liberal party,’ said Robert Lowe in 1877, ‘consists in a view of things undisturbed and undistorted by the promptings of interest or prejudice, in a complete independence of all class interests, and in relying for its success on the better feelings and higher intelligence of mankind.’ The Liberal Party saw itself in the role that Marx assigned to the labour movement: as an alliance between ‘those who think and those who suffer’. Through their books and journalism, intellectuals would ensure that government never moved too far out of contact with the governed and that the masses would grow in self-reliance. Society would then be in every respect self-governing: it would spontaneously generate its own orderliness, and government’s role would diminish almost to vanishing point. Between 1868 and 1900 the smallest number of men of letters and academic people who entered Parliament as Liberals was 28, a figure never matched by the Conservatives. The Liberal intellectuals included some famous names: Bryce, Courtney, Freeman, Lecky, Lowe, J.S. Mill, John Morley.

A nervous concern about the consequences of mass franchise, worries about the concessionary mood of the Liberal leaders – especially in the face of violence in Ireland – led many Late Victorian Liberal intellectuals to drift rightwards toward ‘the stupid party’, which therefore became gradually less stupid. Concern about the impact of the mass franchise on property, social stability and freedom carried more Liberal refugees into Conservatism during the 20th century. But the Conservative Party has far less faith in the spread of reason, smaller hopes of improving the world, and its intellectuals wielded no influence as a group. Those known to the Conservative MP Radcliffe Cooke as ‘the class of prigs, professors, philosophers and pedants’ was not welcome in the House of Commons smoking-room.

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