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The Political Life of Josiah C. Wedgwood: Land, Liberty and Empire, 1872-1943.

The Political Life of Josiah C. Wedgwood: Land, Liberty and Empire, 1872-1943. By Paul Mulvey. (Rochester, NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2010. Pp. xi, 230. $90.00.)

This political biography of the "last of the Radicals" traces the decline of British Radical Liberalism through the career of a man whose belief in individualism was increasingly at odds with his government's actions during a time of great change in Britain's political and international position.

Paul Mulvey begins by tracking Josiah Wedgwood's developing political beliefs through his education, employment in the family business, and encounter with Fabianism. After his marriage to Ethel Bowen, he volunteered for service in the Boer War and then stayed on in South Africa until 1904 to serve as a magistrate under Sir Alfred Milner, whose vision of a self-governing white community in South Africa influenced the younger Wedgwood's lifelong effort to reconcile Radicalism with imperialism.

Mulvey traces the shades of difference between Wedgwood's political views and those of New Liberals and Labourites (Wedgwood joined other Radical Liberals as member of Parliament for Newcastle and kept this seat for many years even as he made the shift to Labour in 1918). He shared their desire to create greater egalitarianism, but where they believed there was a role for collective organizations in tempering inequality, Wedgwood sought to remove monopolies and privileges that affected the free market. Wedgwood's opposition to the 1912 Mental Deficiency Bill, which proposed to "restrict the liberty of a large number of people on the basis of a contentious scientific theory" by trusting "experts" to decide who should be detained, was an early example of his beliefs in action; he later campaigned for a land tax, full adult suffrage, and an elected House of Lords (38). His dilemma as a progressive individualist was to try to reconcile his opposition to an "an unjust status quo" with his skepticism about relying on "coercive state power to remove social inequality" (42).

World War I's end saw a realignment of the Left as progressive Liberals defected to Labour, Wedgwood among them. The early 1920s were perhaps the peak of Wedgwood's career as inexperienced Labour leaders looked to him for direction, but Wedgwood's outspoken, often controversial opinions meant that he was never offered leadership positions. By the early 1930s, Wedgwood seemed increasingly marginal politically as issues such as land taxation, free trade, and democracy in India appeared to be lost battles. Yet his views continued to evolve; he embraced Keynesian economics because he saw the economic crisis of the 1930s as a threat to personal liberty and democracy. During these years he led an ambitious project to write a Whiggish history of Parliament. Near the end of his life, Wedgwood was an early critic of Hitler, his concern for European Jews and support for a Jewish state in Palestine heightening his "sensitivity to the danger of Nazi ideology" (182).

Mulvey argues that it was precisely his Whig sense of history--his faith that there was "a pattern of growing freedom, justice and democracy"--that inspired his championing Liberalism, "whether by uniting the warring factions of South Africa, ending the oppression of landlords, or by publicizing the historical progress of the English parliament" (203). Exhaustively researched, this study will be accessible to nonspecialists; for specialists, it will bring greater nuance to the British political landscape and place the descendant of a pioneering industrialist squarely within it.

Gretchen Galbraith

Grand Valley State University
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Author:Galbraith, Gretchen
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jun 22, 2013
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