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10-08-2015, 15:24

LIBERALISM TRIUMPHANT

In western Europe and North America, liberal principles experienced a better fate. By 1871, Great Britain had a functioning two-party parliamentary system. For fifty years, the Liberals and Conservatives alternated in power at regular intervals. Both were dominated by a ruling class comprised of a coalition of aristocratic landowners frequently involved in industrial and financial activities and upper-middle-class businessmen. And each competed with the other in supporting legislation that expanded the right to vote. Reform acts in 1867 and 1884 greatly expanded the number of adult males who could vote, and by the end of World War I, all males over twenty-one and women over thirty had that right. The growth of trade unions and the emergence in 1900 of the Labour Party, which dedicated itself to workers’ interests, put pressure on the Liberals, who perceived that they would have to initiate a program of social welfare or lose the support of the workers. Therefore, they abandoned the classical principles of laissez-faire and enacted a series of social reforms. The National Insurance Act of 1911 provided benefits for workers in case of sickness or unemployment, to be paid for by compulsory contributions from workers, employers, and the state. Additional legislation provided a small pension for those over seventy and compensation for those injured in accidents at work. A similar process was under way in France, where the overthrow of Napoleon III’s Second Empire in 1870 led to the creation of a republican form of government. France failed, however, to develop a strong parliamentary system on the British two-party model because the existence of a dozen political parties forced the premier to depend on a coalition of parties to stay in power. The Third Republic was notorious for its changes of government. Between 1875 and 1914, there were no fewer than fifty cabinet changes; during the same period, the British had eleven. Nevertheless, the government’s moderation gradually encouraged more and more middle-class and peasant support, and by 1914, the Third Republic commanded the loyalty of most French people. By 1870, Italy had emerged as a geographically united state with pretensions to great-power status. Its internal weaknesses, however, gave that claim a particularly hollow ring. Sectional differences—a poverty-stricken south and an industrializing north—weakened any sense of community. Chronic turmoil between labor and industry undermined the social fabric. The Italian government was unable to deal effectively with these problems because of the extensive corruption among government officials and the lack of stability created by ever-changing government coalitions. Abroad, Italy’s pretensions to great-power status proved equally hollow when Italy became the first European power to lose a war to an African state, Ethiopia, a humiliation that later led to the costly (but successful) attempt to compensate by conquering Libya in 1911 and 1912.

 

 

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