What is history now? (2002) is edited by David Cannadine

John Vincent in 1966 wrote that the great moral idea of British liberalism was manliness. This is a topic Susan Pedersen discusses in a chapter entitled “What is political history now?” in What is history now? (2002). According to Vincent, for a nineteenth-century man one’s assignment in life was “to provide for his own family, have his own religion and politics, and call no man master” (What is history now? 2002, p. 43).

Vincent is cited as the originator of a sociological approach to politics which assumes a functional relationship between social change and party politics. He is credited with underlining that liberalism’s popular appeal in Britain has depended upon ideas rather than exclusively on its political program or organization.

The success of conservative British politicians in the 1920s and 1930s has been similarly ascribed to the communication of cultural and ideological ideas especially “a rhetoric of national reconciliation, private and civic engagement, and economic balance and probity” (p. 44) in the wake of the First World War.

Susan Pederson’s publications include Family policies and the origin of the welfare state: Britain and France, 1914-44,(1993) and After the Victorians: Private conscience and public duty in modern Britain.

A blurb at the Toronto Public Library website, regarding the former publication, notes that “the development of European welfare states in the first half of this century has often been seen as a response to the rise of class politics. This study of social policies in Britain and France between 1914 and 1945 contests this interpretation. It argues, by contrast, that early policymakers and social reformers were responding equally to a perceived crisis of family relations and gender roles. ”

The preface to the second publication, cited above, notes that eminent post-Victorians can be characterized as men and women “who felt as strongly as their Victorian parents that the privileged and the propertied had the responsibility to shape national life. While changes in society and economy were working to limit the effectiveness of such individual interventions, nevertheless the persistence of these Victorian values is worth asserting. And we find them in an increasingly diverese range of activities: not only in high politics, religion and philosophy … but also in town planning and architecture, social and economic policy, imperial administration and missionary work, broadcasting and publishing.”

Unintended consequences of a reliance on a sociological approach to British politics

After introducing Vincent’s perspective regarding the value of a sociological approach, Pederson spends the remainder of her chapter cautioning that such an approach gives rise to unintended consequences. If I understand correctly, the consequences include a fostering of parochialism — dealing with matters merely local, narrow, or restricted in scope — and Panglossianism. The latter refers to the practice “of accepting the exceptional and incomparable character of British institutions and of letting our historical subjects’ understanding of those institutions substitute for our own” (p. 38).

Political leadership; coercive reach of the state; claims to legitimacy

Pedersen begins her concluding overview with a reference to the German sociologist Max Weber’s treatment of politics as constituting, in essence, “those arrangements through which domination is disposed and exercised” (p. 66).

An adequate analysis of these arrangements, Weber asserts, must take into account (a) political leadership by individuals or parties; (b) the structure or coercive reach of the state; and (c) the nature and foundations of claims to legitimacy. An edequate political history, Pedersen contends, must engage with all three aspects.

That is, one must attend along with other things to “governance or rule — of the structure, reach and practices of the state.” The latter aspects of arrangements, as outlined by Weber, are best studied “with some effort at abstraction, not diachronically but synchronically and comparatively” (p. 47). Diachronicity is concerned with the historical development of a subject; synchronicity refers to the simultaneous occurrence of events.

Questions of ‘meaning’ are important — but less important — when historians study topics such as incarceration, education, or conscription, according to the author. For the latter types of studies, the ‘test’ of state institutions is how well they stand up to other states in the arenas of production, reproduction, and war. In this regard, British historians have tended to ignore comparative analysis in favour of tracing British political practices and institutions over time.

By way of example, Pedersen discusses the concept of ‘old corruption,’ a nineteenth-century term of abuse for eighteenth-century political practices. A problem arises when the term is treated as a serious term of political analysis, a concept taken to be accurately descriptive of the workings of the eighteenth-century state. Research indicates that while the latter state “was indeed patrimonial and patronage-riden, it was also … in comparative terms highly efficient” (p. 48).

“In studying stage development, then, some attention to the structure of the political competition — by which I mean other eighteenth-century states and not oppositional parliamanetary factions — is essential and has already proven fruitful” (p. 48).

Similarly, the author asserts, there are benefits to studying the British welfare state or consumption policies comparatively, taking into approaches in other states, rather than from a historical perspective focusing solely on the experience in Britain.

‘More concerned with meaning than causation’

With regard to the comparative history that developed for a while in previous decades among political historians, the author refers to the “political optimism of the 1960s and 1970s and of the engagement of historians with social science methods” (p. 50)  Both the optimism and the engagement are now in the past, she notes. In more recent years, historians have “been more concerned with meaning than causation and have found literary critics and anthropologists more congenial companions than political scientists” (p. 51).

In this regard the author refers, among other things, to a post-Saidian propensity to treat literary texts and cultural artifacts as the critical bearers of imperialism. ‘Post-Saidian propensity’ refers to Edward Said’s legacy. The author’s reservation in this regard is that an overemphasis on the cultural negates the importance of political developments and practices in understanding the history of institutions such as the British empire.

It may be noted, with regard to Pedersen’s comments, that David Cannadine (2001), who is editor of the volume in which this chapter appears, has made it his agenda to bring the imperial metropolis and periphery together within a unified analytical frame. In his account, Cannadine disputes the existence, posited by Said and his followers, of a contrast between an ‘egalitarian’ west and a ‘hierarchical’ orient.


A Feb. 24, 2016 Guardian article is entitled: “Privately educated elite continues to take top jobs, finds survey: Privately schooled people still dominate law, politics, medicine and journalism despite signs of progress, says Sutton Trust.”


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