Whigissimo

Stefan Collini

  • Herbert Butterfield: Historian as Dissenter by C.T. McIntire
    Yale, 499 pp, £30.00, August 2005, ISBN 0 300 09807 3

Do you speak Whiggish? The most recent edition of the Oxford English Dictionary does not, it appears – at least not fluently. The original OED, compiled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, contained full entries for ‘Whig’ and its adjectival derivatives, denoting that group or tradition which had been one of the two main contending forces in British political life from the late 17th to at least the mid 19th century. The dictionary wisely refrained from attempting to specify in any detail what this tradition’s informing principles were, beyond a certain attachment to liberty, parliamentary government and the Protestant succession to the English throne; the general bearing of the term was suggested by the observation that in political life it had largely been superseded by ‘Liberal’, though it could still be used occasionally ‘to express adherence to moderate or antiquated Liberal principles’. The illustrative quotations reinforced this emphasis: ‘The term Whig,’ Lord John Russell said in the 1850s, ‘has the convenience of expressing in one syllable what Conservative Liberal expresses in seven.’

The entry ranged widely over the (mainly pejorative) extensions of the core use, including such delights, now lost, as ‘Whiglings’ and ‘Whigissimi’, but all these terms and their accompanying definitions were dependent on the central political sense. It was not until the OED Supplement published in the mid 1980s that the phrase ‘Whig historian’ made a separate appearance, defined as ‘a historian who interprets history as the continuing and inevitable victory of progress over reaction’. As so often with this magnificent but frustrating compilation, there appeared to be some tension between this encompassing definition and the illustrative examples. Should one simply conclude that ‘Whiggish history’ was history informed by Whig principles in the political sense, as suggested by quotations referring to Macaulay and G.M. Trevelyan (and as the dictionary’s own internal system of cross-referencing implied), or did ‘Whiggish history’ have a larger sense applicable to any account of the past which appeared to be selected and arranged so as to lead up to and confer legitimacy on the present, as in a quotation from 1975 warning against the ‘Whiggish perspectives’ that tended to infect the writing of labour history and women’s history? Clearly, it was not being suggested that toilers in these latter fields had been extolling parliamentary government and the Protestant succession, though the entry was still being offered as a further example of the original political definition. As is indicated by this and similar quotations (including one, I am disconcerted to find, by my younger self), the term expanded at some point to embrace historical accounts of ‘continuing and inevitable’ progress in any desirable direction, rather than simply the direction implied in the original political sense.

The clue – a rather gnomic one – to the relation between these senses (still not discriminated as such) is given by the inclusion of a quotation from 1931: ‘The truth is that there is a tendency for all history to veer over into whig history.’ That sentence is taken from the introduction to Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History, one of those ‘classics’ which is now more referred to than read. Its title, together with the generalised sense of ‘Whig history’, may have entered the language, but beyond having a vague awareness that Whiggish history is, in the terms used by another historical classic of the same vintage, a Bad Thing, many of us might struggle to state Butterfield’s argument any more precisely, and certainly very few people outside a small circle of professional historians could confidently recall what else Butterfield wrote and how, or indeed whether, his other work consorted with his strictures on the Whig interpretation of history.

When I returned to the book itself, a slim volume of 132 small pages, my uncertainty increased rather than diminished. It’s a stylish but oddly elusive work in which proper names are strikingly rare. E.H. Carr was being only slightly unfair when, in What Is History?, published thirty years later, he mocked Butterfield for attacking the Whig interpretation of history without naming ‘a single Whig except Fox, who was no historian, or a single historian save Acton, who was no Whig’. This points to a larger unsteadiness about the object of Butterfield’s criticism, an unsteadiness that was to be reproduced as a tension running throughout his career. In the narrow or literal sense, the ‘Whig interpretation of history’ (usually so capitalised, though not by Butterfield) refers to an account of English history. It is an account that celebrates the unbroken continuity of representative institutions and the legal protection of individual freedom, an account that identifies a deep political wisdom in the English, expressed above all through the wise moderation of those statesmen who adapted to changing circumstances without falling into either rigid reaction or unbridled revolution.

The origins of this account are traced to the middle of the 17th century as parliamentary lawyers attempted to formulate their case against the encroachments of the royal prerogative, arguing for the ‘restoration’ of supposedly ancient liberties rather than pressing the claims of either abstract principle or mere expediency. By the 19th century, this account, generalised and suitably buffed up to accommodate Reform Acts and the like, became the dominant narrative of English history, versions of which could be found in Macaulay, Stubbs, Freeman, and on into the 20th century in the writings of such latter-day Whig historians as Trevelyan and, less obviously, Churchill.

Butterfield’s attack, however, is directed at the informing assumptions of popular and outline histories. ‘It is perhaps a tragedy,’ he writes, or over-writes, ‘that the important work of abridging history is so often left to writers of textbooks and professional manufacturers of commercial literature.’ In such passages he appears to be primarily concerned with the historical framework imbibed and half forgotten by non-historians. ‘Perhaps all history books,’ he remarks with similar loftiness, ‘hold a danger for those who do not know a great deal of history already.’

But at other moments in the book he appears to be preoccupied with a dilemma facing professional historians. He extols detailed research, or what he calls ‘technical history’, as the antidote to the elisions and superficialities of narrative or synoptic history, but at the same time he doubts that such archivally grounded research leads to any fundamental change in the accepted framework. The inconvenient findings of technical history tend to be set on one side as ‘exceptions’, and ‘these exceptions are lost indeed in that combined process of organisation and abridgement by which we reach our general survey of general history.’ So in the broadest terms it is the problem of ‘the relations between historical research and what is known as general history’ that stirs him, and in issuing his warning against ‘an unexamined habit of mind into which we fall when we treat of history on the broad scale’, his use of the first-person plural indicates a predicament he shares. This, and not the prevalence of Protestant and progressive allegiances, or even, quite, the failing of writing about the past ‘with direct and perpetual reference to the present’, is what lies behind the remark quoted in the OED about the ‘tendency for all history to veer over into whig history’.

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