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Heffer’s sympathies are wider than those acquainted only with some of his polemical journalism might expect. His puritanical moralism enables him to write, admiringly and understandingly, about Beatrice and Sidney Webb. For many today the Webbs are known best, perhaps even only, as dupes of the Soviet Union, two of Lenin’s “useful idiots”. Heffer shows what a remarkable woman Beatrice was, and what good and necessary work the pair did before 1914, developing “social theories that would resonate through the Labour movement for decades, such as the idea of a minimum wage and about duties the individual owed to society”; they were also instrumental in creating the London School of Economics, “a great achievement which shaped the future by facilitating the liberal education that would help secure social reform”.

It’s easy in retrospect to see where politicians go wrong, but Heffer, as a good historian, never forgets that events which are now in the past were once in the future, and that political judgments must be made on what is insufficient information. So his criticism is usually tempered by his awareness of circumstances. Certainly the politicians of his Age of Decadence seem like giants when compared to today’s pygmies. Gladstone is, I think, his hero, followed by the adamantine cynic Salisbury. He has a proper admiration for Joe Chamberlain, a man capable of striking out in new directions, whose pursuit of ideas broke first the Liberal, then the Conservative Party. (The young Beatrice Webb was in love with him and almost became both the second and, later, the third Mrs Chamberlain.) Heffer has a soft spot for the unflappable Arthur Balfour, a party leader and Prime Minister who never read the newspapers, and he remarks that Asquith was the last Prime Minister to have been evidently drunk on the Treasury bench. (His biographer, Roy Jenkins, claimed that though he might on occasion have been unsteady on his feet, his mind and diction remained clear. Perhaps.) Heffer has no time for the vulgar swagger of Lord Randolph Churchill with his diamond-studded cigarette holder, and shows just how lucky Lloyd George was to have lived at a time when even newspapers regarded his sex life as something the public had no right, or need, to know. (Question: was this a sign of decadence or good sense?)

The running sore of Heffer’s “Age” was the Irish Question, addressed by every Prime Minister from Gladstone on, resolved by none of them. Its settlement became acute after the Lords rejected Lloyd George’s People’s Budget, and two subsequent general elections left the Liberal government dependent on support from the Irish Nationalists. Heffer’s account of the parliamentary crises of the five years before the outbreak of war in 1914 is clear and gripping. As Asquith brought a Home Rule Bill before Parliament, Protestant Ulster resisted. Andrew Bonar Law, Balfour’s successor as Tory leader, came close to flirting with treason. Sir Edward Carson, a Dubliner by birth, and F.E. Smith made inflammatory speeches supporting, even advocating, armed resistance to Home Rule. Nevertheless, the Home Rule Bill passed through Parliament, even while proposals for at least a temporary opt-out by those Ulster counties with a Protestant majority were being considered. Only the outbreak of war in August 1914 prevented its enactment.

There was Labour unrest too; it was “the most socially divisive and disruptive period since the rise of Chartism in the late 1830s”. True enough, but there were comparable, and often more disruptive labour troubles in France, Germany and the US, and surely one of the most remarkable features of the 20th century was the ability of the ruling class to expand its membership and bring organised Labour into the fold of the constitution. The class war never became a reality in Britain — evidence that Decadence is not the right word to describe the period covered by Heffer.

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