What ever happened to liberal Britain?

In Britain today, the economy is booming. Employment is up, growth is up, public spending is down, and the head of the International Monetary Fund has praised the country's policies as "obviously working." The secret to Britain's success? Thirty years of generally liberal economic policies (liberal in the libertarian sense).

That might be about to come to an end, following the general election in May.

Despite the good economic news, Britons are unhappy. The liberal consensus may be breaking down. If so, it won't be the first time it's happened. And we've seen the dire results.

In 1935, the journalist George Dangerfield wrote a timeless account of the collapse of the British Liberal Party. The Strange Death of Liberal England chronicled how the 19th-century classical-liberal consensus buckled and broke under a series of pressures, from aristocratic reaction through uprisings in Ireland to the rise of the suffragette and labor movements. The Liberal Party went from being the natural party of government in the Edwardian era to being almost wiped out by the 1930s.

Not so long ago, it looked as if Britain's 19th-century liberal tradition had made a triumphant return. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's strong embrace of economic liberalism had been accepted by her spiritual successor, Tony Blair, who added social liberalism to the mix. Dangerfield's description of the archetypal liberal (except for the religious elements) could have applied to any number of British members of Parliament, even those who supported Blair in the Iraq War:

He believed in freedom, free trade, progress and the Seventh Commandment. He also believed in reform. He was strongly in favor of peace -- that is to say, he likes his wars to be fought at a distance and, if possible, in the name of God.

Indeed, challenging Blair's successor, Gordon Brown, in the last general election in 2010 were three parties who were unabashedly liberal in one way or a...

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