This chapter presents a broad overview of the place of Europe and European questions in British political history. It establishes a sense of the historiographical context, considering in turn the ‘new’ political history of recent decades, the histories of party politics, diplomacy and its culture, Europe as Britain’s comparator, British identity, post-war attitudes to European unity, and structural tensions. Reflecting on this contextual framework prompts questions about the chronological parameters we use to assess the last two centuries of interaction with the Continent, not least about the historiographical role of the two world wars, their origins, and their impact. It also raises the issue of the generational phases through which the British polity has passed in its complicated dance with its European neighbours.
Despite current concerns with good governance and policy delivery, little serious attention has been paid to the institution vital to both: the Civil Service. This chapter places present problems in historical context. Starting with the seminal 1854 Northcote–Trevelyan Report, it covers the ‘lost opportunity’ of the 1940s when the Civil Service failed to adapt to rapidly rising demands on the state, as advocated by Beveridge and Keynes. It then examines the belated attempts at modernization in the 1960s, the Service’s vilification in the 1970s, the final destruction of the ‘old order’ during the Thatcher administration, and the subsequent restructuring of the Service and the (highly flawed) embracing of the ‘new public management’ ethos.
This chapter seeks to bring out the interrelated quality of twentieth century discussions of democracy, drawing especially on debates in the 1930s and 1970s. It locates these within the longer history of the British conversation about democracy, a conversation that was both influenced by discussions elsewhere and informed by comparisons with, and imaginings of, other polities. It starts with an examination of the history of debating democracy in Britain and then turns to the British way of doing democracy. It argues that the former is essential to making sense of the latter. It moves on to consider how the British have done democracy, drawing upon an emerging cultural history of democratic practices. The final section offers thoughts on the prospects for the historiography of democracy in Britain, and on what its development so far says about the state of modern British political history.
This chapter attempts to draw out comparisons and make sense of devolution as a UK-wide phenomenon. Devolution has taken a variety of forms at different times in different parts of the UK. A key aim of the chapter is to describe these varieties and explain why no common form of devolution emerged. Devolution may be a form of constitutional development but it has always been linked to wider socio-demographic and economic developments as much as to the sense of collective identities. Some interpretations emphasize the role of national identity in the demands for devolution in Scotland and Wales while others lay more emphasis on differences in political preferences that stimulated demands for self-government. No understanding of the politics of devolution is complete without an appreciation of the roles of identity, the party systems, political and public policy preferences, and how these changed over time.
This chapter falls into two unequal parts. The first charts, broadly chronologically, the shifting understandings, historical and historiographical, of the role of the state in economic life. The second focuses on debates about the performance of the economy, especially notions of ‘decline’ which have been central to those debates since the late nineteenth century. Variegated but overlapping senses of ‘decline’, originating in very specific historical circumstances, have overshadowed much writing on the modern British economy, with, it will be argued, often detrimental effects on our understanding. Such notions need to be historicized—placed firmly in the intellectual, ideological, and above all political contexts within which they arose.
This chapter evaluates the two principal methodologies adopted in studying elections over the past 200 years. The first prominently features ‘psephological’ analyses of aggregate voting data and social cleavages; the second is the revisionist ‘linguistic’ approach, which emphasizes the careful reconstruction and exploration of electoral languages and discourses, often in a specific locality. This chapter argues that, while both approaches have undoubtedly yielded considerable benefits, what was once a large field of scholarly endeavour has been split in two, with the empirical, quantitative tradition now associated with political science on one side and the now dominant cultural and linguistic approaches on the other. The chapter ends by exploring potential new directions and argues that the advent of the ‘digital turn’ and the vast proliferation of electronic sources in its wake now make possible an approach which could see the gap between electoral historians and political scientists begin to close.
A focus on the national institutions of the British state and the men who populated them was the first means by which many understood ‘political history’. This ‘high politics’ remains a popular way to understand the subject. Yet, ‘high politics’ has also been criticized by radical advocates of ‘history from below’ for its methodological and political conservatism. This chapter assesses the merits of focusing on Westminster, Whitehall, and its denizens by employing insights from political science, notably the notion of structure and agency as well as the literature associated with new institutionalism. The chapter also assesses the contribution of the ‘Peterhouse School’—one long reviled by many high-political historians as well as by historians of popular social movements—as a way of bridging the gap between the two methods of conceiving the dynamics of Britain’s modern political history.
This chapter explores what its author sees as three of the most important, and closely related, recent historiographical themes relating to the articulation but also the impact of British political ideas since 1800: political realities, modernity, and moralities. The chapter analyses the close connections and interplay between these three initially seemingly uncomfortable bedfellows, and argues that collectively they have produced a contemporary historiography that, in crossing boundaries in its consideration of cultural, social, and intellectual history; ideas and action; popular and elite attitudes; high ideals; but also sometimes painful realities, is now richer in its understanding of all of these.
This chapter examines British external policy against the background of the expansion of the British empire up to the end of the First World War and its long and uneven demise thereafter. In exploring the political dimensions of this process of expansion and contraction the chapter aims to explore the complexities of the scholarships and chronologies involved. It evaluates how historians have approached key challenges and critical turning points, including the debates surrounding ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ empire, the impact of two world wars, the Suez crisis of 1956 and the decision to withdraw from positions ‘East of Suez’ in 1971.
This chapter reflects on the practice of contemporary history and draws from the experience of researching and writing about recent British prime ministers. It argues that it is inescapable that history is rooted in the period in which it is written and that, however vehemently historians might claim to be impartial, they will reflect the perceptions of the period in which they are writing, as well as their own personal outlooks. Contemporary political historians, as a result, should not attempt to free themselves of the age in which they are writing, but rather should understand that age and celebrate it.
David Brown, Robert Crowcroft, and Gordon Pentland
This chapter introduces the volume by addressing and evaluating the idea of a ‘crisis’ within post-war political history in general and the political history of Britain in particular. It establishes the rationale for the Handbook and explains its intellectual architecture. Rather than offering a neat synoptic overview of modern British political history, the emphasis here is on the multiplicity of views, interests and perspectives that inform our understanding of the political past. Identifying key areas of debate, and ways in which traditional as well as newer fields of enquiry have shaped that understanding, this chapter underlines the vibrancy, and heterogeneity, of modern British political history.
Whatever happened to labour history? In 2000, the Labour party’s centenary produced some dynamic and cutting-edge contributions to the field. Since then, however, some important historiographical trends, the crisis in the Co-Op, a journal occupied by debate over Communism, and the full force of New Labour have significantly thinned the ranks of self-identifying ‘labour’ historians. A discipline that was once in rude health faces novel challenges as a result. This chapter reflects on the historiographical impact of these major developments. It also assesses the current and likely future fortunes of political histories of the labour movement and the Labour party.
This chapter considers the practices, cultures, and institutional development of local government between the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 and the Scottish and Welsh Local Government Acts of 1994. The chapter pays special attention to local government’s centrality to Victorian conceptions of the state and to the important role which Victorians assigned to local government in furthering ‘political education’ among an ever-growing body of parliamentary voters. The chapter goes on to contrast the vitality of Victorian and early twentieth-century local government with the declining profile of local government during the second half of the twentieth century.
This chapter starts from the premise that royal history is not yet properly a part of political history, but ought to be. It first examines who has written about monarchy and how they have done so, suggesting that this work has been distinctive and defective in several respects. It next evaluates how much of the research agenda outlined first by David Cannadine in 2004 has been addressed. The chapter then identifies the area—the study of monarchists and ‘monarchism’—which political (alongside social) historians might most urgently examine. It concludes by presenting preliminary research which indicates how the inclusion of monarchists and monarchism might alter thinking about both the monarchy and its subjects.
This chapter focuses on the changing functions and organization of Parliament in areas that have received less attention in existing scholarship. The ‘rise of democracy’ was not the only imperative driving Parliament’s almost complete remodelling as an institution during the period under study. Broader cultural factors also played their part, as a number of innovative studies examining the environment of Parliament from the perspective of architectural space, historic identity, parliamentary debate, scientific inquiry, and the concept of time (to name but a few) have sought to indicate. Gaps still remain, however, particularly in terms of work on the House of Lords and the development of Parliament’s legislative and scrutiny functions. Drawing on some of these historical approaches, and proposing a few new ones, this chapter explores the changing power structures and operation of Parliament in two key areas: the business of law-making and the relationship between its two houses.
This chapter evaluates the large volume of creative scholarship that has reinterpreted and recast our understanding of the ‘heroic age’ of parliamentary reform before the early twentieth century. In doing so, it argues that this varied body of work in itself highlights the value of parliamentary reform as an area for historical research, not least because it has acted as a fertile source of new questions and approaches for political history more generally. Its centrality to accounts of Britain’s political past makes the conspicuous absence of historical accounts of parliamentary reform over the longue durée puzzling. The chapter ends by discussing whether a long-term analysis of parliamentary reform is desirable or possible and examining the potential for historical research into parliamentary reform after 1945.
Despite being the most popular and accessible form of political activity among ordinary people, petitioning has received remarkably little attention from modern British historians. This chapter focuses on what gains in understanding such attention might yield. First, the historical study of petitions and demonstrations underlines the fact that popular politics was not always coterminous with party or electoral politics. Second, petitions provide a way to break down the barriers between high and low or elite and popular politics and offer a lens through which to study the transnational and imperial dimension of British political culture. Finally, the chapter looks to future directions and argues that quantitative and geographic mapping techniques offer the potential to inject a new, and long overdue, quantitative rigour into the study of modern British political history.
This chapter offers a critical overview of the emergence of different strands of historical enquiry into political communication, a term of art rarely used in Britain until the 1960s and only taken seriously by historians from the 1980s. The chapter pays particular attention to the history of political communication in the era of mass democracy and the mass media and focuses on the relationship between the British left and the media as a lens onto wider developments. The final section examines how, particularly after the election victory of New Labour in 1997, a new generation of historians has explored the phenmenon of mediated political communication and its intersections with areas of popular culture with increasing sophistication.
Both politicians and historians have circled nervously around the precise relationship between political ideas and political actions in the past 200 years. This chapter evaluates the different ways in which historians have considered the role of ideas within politics and, in particular, challenges the unhelpful dichotomy of framing politics as either an ‘ideological’ or a ‘pragmatic’ activity. It is concerned, therefore, with the interactions between ideas and action, or theory and practice, and the ways in which political ‘ideas’ may be historicized, reflecting too on the implications of this for framing political action as ‘high’ or ‘low’ (or ‘popular’). Attention is paid to the importance of language in shaping political thought and action.
This chapter examines the emergence, roles, and meanings of ‘party’ within British politics from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It traces the transition from ‘mixed’ government to ‘parliamentary’ government and ultimately to ‘party’ government. The altered function and nature of political parties within these shifting constitutional contexts is assessed. How parties functioned at the parliamentary and local level is also explored. It moves on to consider how historians have approached different aspects of party activity—their organization of the contest for power in Parliament; specific party histories; embodiments of ideology; how parties have organized themselves; winning elections—and evaluates the role of the idea of a ‘two-party system’ within British politics and historiography as the ‘natural’ alignment of party activity.