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George Dangerfield, The Strange Death of Liberal England: Commentaries

What happens in this passage

Asquith, addressing the Commons on the minimum wage bill, is overcome with emotion.

Commentary

This passage has the vivid immediacy of a novel, and is typical of the style of the whole book. It describes a small but clearly very telling moment in the course of the debate and the impact of the last sentence, stuck out on its own away from the main text, helps to engender in the reader something of the same horror that Dangerfield describes affecting the MPs. It is an imaginative reconstruction: Dangerfield has no way of knowing whether Asquith, in is own mind, was addressing the miners rather than the House, nor can he know if everyone in the House was actually ‘fascinated and appalled’. Yet at the same time, for all its tone of imaginative invention, this scene also rings true. We know something of the immense strain Asquith was under, such that might well reduce even a politician to tears. Asquith was something of a sentimental figure, often falling hopelessly in love with much younger women and even writing love letter during Cabinet meetings, so there is nothing implausible in the scene Dangerfield describes. Given what we know of attitudes at the period, it is not difficult to imagine that MPs would indeed have been both fascinated by the spectacle of the Prime Minister weeping at the despatch box and appalled by it at the same time.

Perhaps because his journalistic background gives him greater freedom of manoeuvre, Dangerfield here brings out an important aspect of historical writing which is not addressed often enough: the interplay between strict observance of historical facts and evidence, and the necessary exertion of the historian’s imagination. The historical record is always incomplete; in any case, sometimes we want to know things of the past that, by their nature, were never likely to be recorded in the first place. In such cases disciplined imagination, in line with the evidence, is required and here Dangerfield employs it to very good effect.

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