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Norman Angell 1872 - 1967

entry in the Dictionary of Liberal Thought

by Michael Meadowcroft

Sir Norman Angell was a leading anti-war activist. He became famous in 1910 for his work The Great Illusion. Never formally a Liberal, though openly respected by many major Liberal politicians, he was one of a number of "progressive radicals" who joined the Labour party after the First World War. He consistently sought to expound the thesis that global economic interdependence made recourse to war financially detrimental to all participants.

Key ideas


Ralph Norman Angell Lane was born on 26 December 1872 into a comfortably off Lincolnshire merchant family. He was a precocious child and had absorbed John Stuart Mill's "Essay on Liberty" at the age of twelve. It was a work that he acknowledged to be a major influence on his subsequent thinking. Frustrated by what he saw as the constraints of his private middle class education - first in Paris and then in Geneva - and a conventional path opening up thereafter, he took himself off to the United States where he immersed himself in the struggle to establish the American West, working as a migrant farm worker, cowboy and prospector. Only when that life became too difficult and he began earning a living as a journalist did he realise what his real profession would be. Whilst in America he added his paternal grandmother's maiden name to his second given name and became Norman Angell, ratifying this change by deed poll in March 1920.

In 1909 he paid for the printing and distribution of a pamphlet, Europe's Optical Illusion, which set out his ideas. It elicited no response until Hugh Massingham devoted two pages in the influential radical weekly The Nation to this "new and brilliant writer" and his pamphlet. The following year Angell produced a revised and expanded version, The Great Illusion, which over the following three years sold two million copies and was translated into twenty languages. It also inspired enlightened Conservatives, such as Sir Richard Garton, to put substantial sums into a foundation to develop Angell's ideas.

When it became increasingly clear in 1914 that there would be war in mainland Europe he launched the short-lived Neutrality League with the aim of keeping Britain out of the conflict and able to play the role of peacemaker. This in turn failed and the war began, but far from taking his bat home, Angell became a founder member of the Union of Democratic Control (UDC). This was never a pacifist, "Stop the War" movement, but it was severely critical of the way Britain was conducting the war. Angell increasingly found his involvement in the political hothouse distasteful and he departed for the USA. Within a year the introduction of conscription disturbed him enough to draw him back to Britain.

After the war Angell attended the Paris Peace Conference as an observer and found its deliberations and conclusions highly distressing. At this point he decided that, despite his personal discomfort in the political arena, it was the duty of like-minded radicals to join the Labour movement and to seek election to parliament. In 1920, along with a number of radical Liberal friends he joined the ILP. He fought Rushcliffe and Rossendale unsuccessfully in 1922 and 1923 respectively before being elected for Bradford North in 1929. His short experience in the House of Commons confirmed his distaste for the parliamentary rough and tumble and this, along with his view that Macdonald's National Government was economically justified but politically disloyal, meant that he did not seek re-election in 1931. Macdonald generously recommended him for a knighthood in 1931 and, rather curiously timed, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1933. He fought the London University seat unsuccessfully in 1935, nominally as the Labour candidate but much more as a protagonist for the League of Nations.

Angell's anti-war stance was never based on pacifist foundations even though until 1935 he happily worked alongside pacifists. His anti-war efforts in the 1920s and the early 1930s were largely based on the cruciality of the League of Nations, seeing it as a vital step towards a meaningful international order. Its evident weakness disillusioned him and by 1938 he had aligned himself with the anti-appeasers in support of Churchill. Soon after the Second World War broke out he again went to the USA where he remained until after the publication of his memoirs in 1951. The nearest Angell came to allying himself to the Liberal cause was a letter to Gilbert Murrry in 1940 in which he wrote: "having tried to make the best of all the socialist slogans and Marxist incantations, I have been pushed more and more to the conviction that it is a type of Liberalism which alone can save us."

Small in stature and ascetic in appearance, he nevertheless impressed and inspired by his ability to marshal facts and evidence in support of the rational case for internationalism - which he promoted into great old age, carrying out a lecture tour of America at the age of 90. Angell never married and, despite his efforts, he died in 1967 largely unknown to the majority of British and American opinion formers.


The core of Angell's philosophy fitted comfortably into classical liberalism and it can be argued that his affiliation to the ILP was more a pragmatic political decision than a commitment to socialism. In common with a number of Liberals of the First World War era, including Charles Trevelyan, Noel Buxton, Arthur Ponsonby, J A Hobson and R L Outhwaite, the weakness of the post-war Liberal party provoked such radicals to align themselves with Labour as the more likely vehicle for the effective promotion of their views. They co-existed with Labour's socialist left, alongside many hitherto unaligned individuals, in particular Norman Angell.

The theme of Angell's definitive work, The Great Illusion, was rooted in liberalism, rejecting equally the Marxist obscurantism that war was the product of capitalism and the Tory jingoism which banged the patriotic drum for the nation state. The illusion in question was that war could be economically advantageous.

Angell accepted that defective human nature could espouse irrational motivations such as a desire for "lebensraum", or for the pursuit of a narrow patriotism or other codes of honour, and that this could - and manifestly did - transcend the rationality he propounded. He did however believe that it was possible to persuade enough politically influential individuals to abandon economic rivalry as a casus belli and that this could prevent the outbreak of war. He cited the abandonment of barbaric practices such as duelling, judicial torture and the burning of heretics as examples of the progress of rational human society.

His eventual perception that Nazi Germany was putting such civilised progress into reverse led him to advocate rearmament against Germany, believing that a united stance by Britain, France and the USA would be militarily powerful enough to deter German aggression. For the same reason he was passionately in favour of the League of Nations as the key international vehicle for joint action against nationalist expanionism. He regarded the target audience for his lectures and his writing as the educated general public, ie neither the "common people" not the academic elite.

His attendance at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and the clarity of his perception that the attempts to impose impossible reparations on Germany would have disastrous consequences led him to publish his own analysis of the resulting likelihood of a coming European crisis, even before Maynard Keynes' more famous work on the same topic.

His "pure" internationalism was inhibited after 1945 by his view that the Soviet Union had replaced Germany as the world's most dangerous potential aggressor and that therefore a strong Anglo-American alliance, plus Western unity, were integral to a strong United Nations and the maintenance of world peace. He remains a thinker of note, and the most cogent exponent of a political rationalism which has the potential to underpin international relations in the interests of peace.

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Further reading