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‘HIGH POLITICS’ AND THE ‘NEW POLITICAL HISTORY’*

  • DAVID M. CRAIG (a1)
Abstract
ABSTRACT

Recent claims about the convergence in methodology between ‘high politics’ and the ‘new political history’ remain unclear. The first part of this review examines two deeply entrenched misunderstandings of key works of high politics from the 1960s and 1970s, namely that they proposed elitist arguments about the ‘closed’ nature of the political world, and reductive arguments about the irrelevance of ‘ideas’ to political behaviour. The second part traces the intellectual ancestry of Maurice Cowling's thinking about politics, and places it within an interpretative tradition of social science. The formative influences of R. G. Collingwood and Michael Oakeshott are examined, and Mark Bevir's Logic of the history of ideas is used to highlight how Cowling's approach can be aligned with ‘new political history’.

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Corresponding author
Department of History, Durham University, 43 North Bailey, Durham, DH1 3EXd.m.craig@durham.ac.uk
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*

I am grateful to Philip Williamson for the loan of various materials, and for comments on earlier versions of this review.

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1 S. Pedersen, ‘What is political history now?’, in D. Cannadine, ed., What is history now? (London, 2002), p. 42.

2 In this context the phrase ‘new political history’ was coined by J. Vernon, Politics and the people: a study in English political culture, c. 1815–1867 (Cambridge, 1993), and Wahrman D., ‘The new political history: a review essay’, Social History, 21, (1996), pp. 343–54. See also Black L., ‘Popular politics in modern British history’, Journal of British Studies, 40, (2001), pp. 431–45, and Fielding S., ‘Looking for the “new political history”’, Journal of Contemporary History, 42, (2007), pp. 515–24.

3 English Historical Review, 113 (1998), p. 1024.

4 Pedersen, ‘What is political history now?’, pp. 42, 40.

5 M. Cowling, Mill and liberalism (2nd edn, Cambridge, 1990), p. xiv.

6 Brent R., ‘Butterfield's Tories: “High politics” and the writing of modern British history’, Historical Journal, 30, (1987), pp. 947–8. See also Crowcroft R., ‘Maurice Cowling and the writing of British political history’, Contemporary British History, 22, (2008), pp. 279–86, which offers a supportive but sometimes misleading survey of Cowling's thinking. A forthcoming definitive account is P. Williamson, ‘Maurice Cowling and modern British political history’, in R. Crowcroft, S. J. D. Green, and R. Whiting, eds., Philosophy, politics and religion in British democracy: Maurice Cowling and conservatism (London, 2010).

7 Cowling suggested that the phrase was first used by the historian, Joseph Lee, when a fellow of Peterhouse between 1968 to 1974: New York Review of Books, 10 Apr. 1986.

8 Times Literary Supplement, 25 July 1975, p. 839; Spectator, 26 July 1975, p. 111; Listener, 25 Sept. 1975, p. 407.

9 Economist, 2 Aug. 1975, p. 105.

10 Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, 15 (1967), p. 40; Historical Journal, 11 (1968), p. 595.

11 Times, 26 Apr. 1971, p. 16; Historical Journal, 17 (1971), p. 208.

12 Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, 24 (1972), p. 65.

13 Economist, 19 Aug. 1972, p. 54.

14 E.g. Times, 28 Feb. 1974, p. 15.

15 Historical Journal, 19 (1976), p. 306; Spectator, 26 July 1975, p. 111.

16 D. Beales, ‘Peel, Russell and reform’, Historical Journal, 17 (1974), p. 874.

17 Economist, 22 July 1967, p. 329, 2 Mar. 1974, p. 110, 2 Aug. 1975, p. 105.

18 Observer, 27 July 1975, p. 23.

19 Times, 26 Apr. 1971, p. 16; Bulletin of the Society for the Study of Labour History, 24 (1972), p. 65.

20 American Political Science Review, 68 (1974), p. 810; American Historical Review, 77 (1972), p. 795.

21 English Historical Review, 91 (1976), p. 153; Spectator, 26 July 1975, p. 111.

22 English Historical Review, 88 (1973), p. 145; Historical Journal, 19 (1976), p. 307.

23 Beales, ‘Peel’, p. 875.

24 M. Cowling, The impact of Labour 1920–1924: the beginning of modern British politics (Cambridge, 1971), p. 3.

25 A. B. Cooke and J. Vincent, The governing passion: cabinet government and party politics in Britain, 1885–1886 (Brighton, 1974), p. 21. M. Cowling, 1867 Disraeli, Gladstone and revolution: the passing of the Second Reform Bill (Cambridge, 1967), p. 340, also speaks of a ‘closed’ world. For an account of the differences between the approach of Cowling and that of Cooke and Vincent, see M. Bentley, ‘Party, doctrine and thought’, in M. Bentley and J. Stevenson, eds., High and low politics in modern Britain: ten studies (Oxford, 1983), p. 130.

26 Cowling, Labour, p. 11.

27 Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, p. 21.

28 Cowling, Labour, p. 4.

29 Cowling, 1867, pp. 288, 340.

30 Ibid., p. 315.

31 Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, pp. 5–6, 7–8, 20–1.

32 Ibid., p. 21. Compare Vincent's endorsement of 1867 in Economic History Review, 20 (1967), p. 564.

33 Cowling, 1867, p. 3.

34 Ibid., pp. 4, 61.

35 Cowling, Labour, p. 4.

36 Ibid., p. 11.

37 Cowling, 1867, pp. 61, 286.

38 Ibid., p. 60, my emphasis.

39 Cowling, Labour, p. 39.

40 Cowling, 1867, p. 316.

41 Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, pp. xiii–xiv, 5, 119.

42 Ibid., p. 16.

43 Ibid., p. 5.

44 Cowling, Labour, p. 3. The size could vary, even in the same work. The nature and limits of political science (Cambridge, 1963), speaks of forty to fifty men on p. 30 and seventy to eighty on p. 189.

45 Cowling, Labour, p. 4, my emphasis.

46 Cowling, 1867, p. 288.

47 Cowling, Labour, p. 12; Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, p. 20.

48 For Cowling's views of Namier, compare Nature and limits, p. 172, with Religion and public doctrine, iii: Accommodations (Cambridge, 2001), pp. 620, 635–46.

49 Historical Journal, 19 (1976), p. 306; Spectator, 26 July 1975, p. 111.

50 Cowling, 1867, pp. 10, 155; Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, p. 150.

51 Cowling, Labour, p. 28.

52 Ibid., p. 30, my emphasis.

53 M. Cowling, The impact of Hitler: British politics and British policy, 1933–1940 (Cambridge, 1975), p. ix.

54 Compare 1867, p. 312, and Nature and limits, pp. 181–5.

55 Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, p. 66.

56 Cowling, 1867, pp. 4, 5.

57 Jones A., ‘Where “governing is the use of words”’, Historical Journal, 19 (1976), p. 252; Cowling, 1867, p. 33.

58 Cowling, 1867, pp. 311–12; Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, p. 66.

59 Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, p. 61.

60 Ibid., pp. 52, 55.

61 Cowling, Hitler, p. 2. This was reaffirmed in the 1990 edition of Mill and liberalism, p. xv.

62 Cowling, 1867, p. 7.

63 Ibid., pp. 209, 294.

64 Cowling, Labour, pp. 9, 418; Cowling, Hitler, pp. 36–41.

65 Cowling, 1867, p. 54; Cowling, Labour, p. 5.

66 Cowling, Labour, pp. 422–3. See also M. Cowling, ‘The present position’, in M. Cowling, ed., Conservative essays (London, 1978), p. 10.

67 Cowling, Hitler, p. 260.

68 See Nature and limits, pp. 185–6, and ‘The present position’, p. 9.

69 A. Jones, The politics of reform, 1884 (Cambridge, 1972), p. 11.

70 Cowling, 1867, pp. 317, 318.

71 Cowling, Labour, p. 39. The same was true of official publications: Nature and limits, pp. 20–3; Hitler, p. 2.

72 E.g. P. M. Gurowich, ‘Party and independence in the early and mid-Victorian House of Commons’ (Ph.D. thesis, Cambridge, 1986), pp. 8–9.

73 Cowling, 1867, pp. 325–31.

74 Ibid., p. 331.

75 Ibid., p. 242.

76 This is a common misperception of critics, e.g. Clark P., ‘Political history in the 1980s’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History, 12 (1981), p. 47.

77 Cooke and Vincent, Governing passion, p. 16.

78 Cowling, Labour, p. 109.

79 Cowling, Hitler, pp. 1, 5, my emphasis.

80 Cowling, 1867, p. 3.

81 E.g. C. Covell, The redefinition of conservatism: politics and doctrine (London, 1986), pp. 144–71; Harris I., ‘Religion, authority and politics: the thought of Maurice Cowling’, Political Science Reviewer, 26, (1997), pp. 434–81.

82 P. Ghosh, ‘Towards the verdict of history: Mr Cowling's doctrine’, in M. Bentley, ed., Public and private doctrine: essays in British history presented to Maurice Cowling (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 306–8.

83 Ibid., pp. 274–5.

84 Cowling, 1867, p. 312.

85 See Michael Bentley, ‘Interviews with historians: Maurice Cowling’, Institute of Historical Research DVD, c. 1998.

86 M. Cowling, Religion and public doctrine in modern England (Cambridge, 1980), p. xxi.

87 H. Butterfield, Christianity and history (London, 1949), p. 37, and highlighted by Jones, ‘Where “governing is the use of words”’, p. 253. See also Cowling, Religion, pp. 237–8.

88 Cowling, Religion, p. xx. The best account of Cowling's early years is recalled to Bentley, ‘Interviews with historians: Maurice Cowling’.

89 Cowling, Religion, p. 258.

90 Ibid., p. xxiii.

91 Ibid., p. 160.

92 Although now a cliché, this phrase was used repeatedly in R. G. Collingwood, The idea of history (Oxford, 1946), pp. 115, 117, 215, 317, and endorsed in idem, An autobiography (Oxford, 1939), p. 110.

93 Collingwood, Idea of history, p. 213; idem, Autobiography, p. 58.

94 Collingwood, Autobiography, p. 110.

95 Cowling, Religion, pp. 162, 94. For the way these ideas were conveyed to Cowling by his tutor in 1943–4, see pp. 73–96.

96 Ibid., p. 188.

97 Collingwood, Autobiography, p. 66. See also idem, An essay on metaphysics, ed. R. Martin (Oxford, 1998), pp. 70–4.

98 Collingwood, Metaphysics, p. 60.

99 Cowling, Religion, p. 178.

100 See R. Martin, ‘Editor's Introduction’ to Collingwood, Metaphysics, pp. lxxxii–iii n. 4.

101 M. Cowling, ‘Theory and politics’, transcript of radio broadcast, c. 1963, p. 11, in the possession of Philip Williamson.

102 Cowling, Religion, p. 188. See Collingwood, Autobiography, pp. 29–43; idem, Metaphysics, pp. 23–33.

103 See Cowling M., ‘Mr Woodruff's Acton’, Cambridge Journal, 6 (1952), p. 181; Nature and limits, pp. 46–7.

104 Cowling, Religion, p. 230.

105 Cowling, ‘Introduction’ to Mill and liberalism, p. xv. He also objected to Skinner's liberalism and irreligion: Religion, iii, pp. 619–21.

106 Cowling, Religion, pp. 188–9.

107 He later criticized Nature and limits for its statements about academic neutrality, arguing that all academics had doctrines to peddle: Religion, p. xxii; ‘Introduction’ to Mill and liberalism, p. xi.

108 Cowling, Religion, p. 272. The quotation is from M. Oakeshott, ‘Rationalism in politics’, in Rationalism in politics and other essays (Indianapolis, IN, 1991), p. 12. The statement par excellence is ‘Political education’ in the same volume, pp. 43–69.

109 Cowling, Nature and limits, pp. 131, 208, 198, 206.

110 Ibid., pp. 135, 138.

111 Ibid., p. 212.

112 Oakeshott, ‘Political education’, p. 63.

113 Cowling, Nature and limits, p. 16.

114 Cowling, Mill and liberalism, pp. 118–31.

115 P. Winch, The idea of a social science and its relation to philosophy (London, 1958), p. 15.

116 Ibid., pp. 54–65.

117 Ibid., p. 133.

118 M. Bevir, The logic of the history of ideas (Cambridge, 1999), pp. 122–3.

119 Ibid., p. 80.

120 N. Attallah, ed., Singular encounters (London, 1990), pp. 130–1, my emphasis.

121 Bevir, Logic, p. 46.

122 Ibid., p. 199.

123 Ibid., p. 229.

124 M. Bentley, ‘Prologue: the retiring Mr Cowling’, in Public and private doctrine, p. 8; Ghosh, ‘Towards the verdict of history’, passim.

125 Cowling, 1867, p. 312.

126 Cowling, Religion, p. xxiv.

127 Bentley, ‘Prologue’, p. 9.

128 Cowling, ‘The present position’, pp. 22–3.

129 See J. Parry, Democracy and religion: Gladstone and the liberal party, 1867–1875 (Cambridge, 1986).

130 Bevir, Logic, p. 141.

131 Q. Skinner, ‘The principles and practice of opposition: The case of Bolingbroke versus Walpole’ in N. McKendrick, ed., Historical perspectives: studies in English thought and society in honour of J. H. Plumb (London, 1974), pp. 93–128.

132 Cowling, ‘Theory and politics’, p. 10.

133 Bevir, Logic, pp. 269–70.

134 Cowling, Nature and limits, pp. 18–19, 124.

135 Cowling, Mill and liberalism, p. 107.

136 Collingwood, Idea of history, p. 316. Cowling also favoured the language of ‘situation’. See Nature and limits, pp. 178–85 and 1867, pp. 312–15.

137 M. Bevir and R. Rhodes, Interpreting British governance (London, 2003), pp. 63, 41.

138 Ibid., p. 41.

139 Ibid.

140 Cowling, Nature and limits, p. 174.

141 Ibid., pp. 178, 189.

142 M. Bentley and J. Stevenson, ‘Introduction’ in idem, High and low politics, p. 1; P. Williamson, National crisis and national government: British politics, the economy and empire, 1926–1932 (Cambridge, 1992), p. 13.

143 L. Goldman, Science, reform, and politics in Victorian Britain: the Social Science Association 1857–1886 (Cambridge, 2002), pp. 7–11.

144 J. Lawrence, ‘Political history’, in S. Berger, H. Feldner, and K. Passmore, eds., Writing history: theory and practice (London, 2003), p. 194.

145 J. Parry, The politics of patriotism: English liberalism, national identity and Europe, 1830–1886 (Cambridge, 2006), p. 33.

* I am grateful to Philip Williamson for the loan of various materials, and for comments on earlier versions of this review.

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