In the latest issue:

Botanic Macaroni

Steven Shapin

What made the Vikings tick?

Tom Shippey

In the Lab

Rupert Beale

Will there be a Brexit deal?

Anand Menon

Short Cuts: Under New Management

Rory Scothorne


Bridget Alsdorf

Sarah Moss

Blake Morrison

Poem: ‘Country Music’

Ange Mlinko

On the Trail of Garibaldi

Tim Parks

Art Lessons

Peter Campbell

You’ll like it when you get there

Tom Crewe

Early Kermode

Stefan Collini

‘The Vanishing Half’

Joanna Biggs

At the Movies: ‘The Truth’

Michael Wood

The Suitcase: Part Two

Frances Stonor Saunders

Poem: ‘Siri U’

Jorie Graham

Diary: Getting into Esports

John Lanchester

Tory HistoryAlan Ryan
English Society 1688-1832 
by J.C.D. Clark.
Cambridge, 439 pp., £30, November 1985, 0 521 30922 0
Show More
Virtue, Commerce and History 
by J.G.A. Pocock.
Cambridge, 321 pp., £25, November 1985, 0 521 25701 8
Show More
Show More

Demolish a much-loved building, and you are left with rubble. Demolish a much-loved piece of political theory, and you find it rising from its own ashes, somewhat changed in appearance, but detectably the same creature as before. The ‘Whig Interpretation of History’ is a case in point. Herbert Butterfield slew it in 1931, and here come John Pocock and Jonathan Clark to slay it again. There is next to nothing in common between them, save their opposition to the Whig Interpretation and its offspring: but it is that opposition which provides both of them with the structure of their argument and the dramatic purpose of their work.

Anyone over forty who went to an English public school where Confirmation Classes, the Cadet Corps and O-Level History were unshakable elements of the natural order will remember the Whig Interpretation. Schoolroom history began with the proposition that the Stuart kings were a bad lot, given to homosexuality (James I), extravagance (Charles I), excessive wenching (Charles II) and a systematic attempt to debauch our ancient liberties and betray us into the hands of the Pope and Louis XIV (Charles II and James II). The enforced departure of James II was a great relief to sensible, industrious, Anglican Englishmen. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 was glorious indeed: it restored ancient liberties, established that parliaments were supreme and kings their far from absolute servants, and all without the disagreeable excesses of Puritanism and regicide which had marred Cromwell’s regime.

According to this rosy picture, the 18th century was not entirely satisfactory – Whig supremacy or no. It had its virtues. With James II out of the way, the country defeated the French, invented banking, and undertook both an agricultural and an industrial revolution, thus demonstrating that the English were great and glorious because they were wise and right. But there were problems. It took too long to get from 1688 to 1832. If John Locke had established once and for all that the doctrine of the Divine Right of Kings was obsolete verbal rubbish, and 1688 had implemented Locke’s programme for government by consent, and government by consent meant government by parliamentary democracy, it was odd that in 1830 a smaller proportion of the population had the vote than had had it in 1714, and that 1832 only restored the old proportion. If the Anglican Church had become latitudinarian, why did it take so long for Dissenters to gain full admission to the political system? Corruption and court politics account for a lot, but if almost everyone was a disciple of Locke after 1688, it was surprising that Bentham was an old man by the time Catholic Emancipation and the First Reform Act had become law.

The usual view is that with the publication of The Whig Interpretation of History Herbert Butterfield buried this naively teleological approach to history, and forced us to understand the past only in its own terms. As Dr Clark observes, historians who read Butterfield learned that it was not their job to award marks to the actors of the past; nor were they entitled to impose on the past a present-centred framework which implied that the whole point of the past was to bring about what the historian regarded as progress. Evaluation must not be confused with explanation: the fact that things turned out ‘well’ tells us nothing about why they turned out as they did. Dr Clark’s professed view is that historians can’t explain events in any case. Dr Clark’s slogan, enunciated in the Butterfield spirit, is ‘narrative not interpretation’. But many historians have observed that the demolition of the Whig Interpretation leaves an intellectual vacuum. Historians are apt to feel that if history is not the triumph of moderation and good sense, it must be the triumph of something, or it becomes a mere tale of sound and fury told by an idiot. The natural replacement for old-fashioned liberal triumphalism is offered by Marxism, and it’s no surprise to find Christopher Hill claiming that some sort of Whiggism is inescapable, nor to find Professor Pocock and Dr Clark denouncing Marxist historians as Whigs. The Marxist construes the 18th century as the century of the rise of the capitalist bourgeoisie: Locke was their ideologist, the Whig grandees both their sponsors and their predators, the labouring classes their victims, as patriarchal relations gave way to the callous cash nexus. Clark and Pocock offer very different pictures of what 18th-century political argument was all about – but they are at one in their view of what it was not about. Both denounce Marxist historians as Whigs in economists’ clothing; both hold that nothing about the 18th century can be explained by appealing to the rising bourgeoisie. There they part company: Pocock to write about the decline of republicanism, Clark to write about the astonishing survival of patriarchy, orthodoxy and monarchy.

Viewed as what Professor Pocock sometimes calls ‘tunnel history’ – each researcher drives his or her own tunnel through the historical debris and reports on the findings – both books are impossible to fault. Pocock reminds us of the ways in which dissident Whigs and rural Tories understood the rise of a new economic order built upon an extended credit system: not as the first step towards modernity, but as a system of corruption destined to lead to tyranny or mob rule. Clark reminds us of the vast literature of politically-motivated sermons which built up in every clergyman’s and every gentleman’s library, of the extent to which political argument was still in the hands of the clergy. But both of them shift uneasily between the view that his tunnel represents the reality of 18th-century political life and the more modest claim that it represents one reality. Neither asks himself just what it would take to demolish a Marxist account of the material he employs: Clark inveighs against ‘economic reductionism’, but in the end only asserts that we must take 18th-century politico-theological arguments seriously; Pocock argues that we are all the children of our pasts rather than our futures, but has no general argument against the view that the appeal of ideologies ought to be explained in economic terms. It may be that both believe that there is no general argument to be had, and that the most one can do is drive Marxists and Whigs out of one position at a time. But both are faced with the awkward question whether the intellectual constructions they attend to influenced or merely reflected the realities of social and political life, and neither does much to dispel the doubts of those who suspect that most of these arguments were epiphenomena rather than vital determinants of men’s actions.

Dr Clark’s book is the more surprising. Surprise starts with the discrepancy between the book’s title and its contents. One might expect English Society 1688-1832 to be about English society, about demography, standards of living, family life, work and the like – but not a bit of it. Clark’s claim is that until the élite sold the pass in 1828, politics was in no sense about ‘material life’: Braudel is seen off in one dismissive footnote, Christopher Hill in a paragraph. Instead, we must attend to the intellectual categories which made sense to an Anglican and aristocratic society which took rank and deference for granted. The cast of the book follows from this perspective: bishops and aspiring bishops, the clergymen who had the dubious privilege of delivering State sermons on the anniversary of the ‘martyrdom’ of Charles I, and commentators on the manners of gentlemen. Practising politicians appear in large numbers only towards the end of the story when the betrayal of the Ancien Régime by Catholic Emancipation is explained as a Whig plot to which the Tories needlessly capitulated. Clark justifies the title of his book by concentrating on the social and ideological supports of the Ancien Régime, rather than on the politics of the day.

Part of what lies behind this unusual strategy is Clark’s extreme dislike of Professor J.H. Plumb. Clark’s hostility to all sorts and conditions of radical historiography turns out on closer inspection to be a hostility to anything and everything said by Jack Plumb. The unwary reader might wonder how Plumb comes to be bracketed with Macaulay, Lecky, Buckle and Christopher Hill; Plumb’s sympatheties are not those of Clark, but he relishes ‘high politics’ and concentrates as hard as any disciple of Maurice Cowling could wish on the details of élite manoeuvre. Nor is Plumb an uncritical admirer of the Whig supremacy or taken in by the England the Whigs governed – it was coarse, provincial and brutal, and infinitely less chic than contemporary France. The answer is that Plumb is a triumphalist like all the others: he writes the history of The Growth of Political Stability from the standpoint of the victors, and from a teleological perspective. England ‘needed’ stability: the Whigs and their Hanoverian monarchs provided it. Well done them, as you might say. Clark hates it as doctrine, and he hates it as tone of voice. After 1760, Hanoverian politics are condemned by Plumb as a chaotic and expensive drag on social progress – by the time George IV died, the system was wholly rotten. Clark’s vision of the end of the Ancien Régime is a tragic one. 1829 (a more crucial date than 1832) marks the death of the confessional state: with Catholic Emancipation and the beginnings of Parliamentary reform, the pass was decisively sold. Even if, as he constantly says, words like ‘liberal’, ‘bourgeois’ and ‘individualist’ are slippery and hard to anchor in the words or thoughts of the men of the 18th and early 19th centuries, he, too, thinks that at some point the victory went to those who thought that the state did not need the support of an established church, who thought that society could do without a single hierarchy of honour and status, and who thought that society would be happier and better if it acknowledged a plurality rather than a unity of values. Plumb belongs with the victors, Clark with the vanquished. For all the evasiveness of ‘it might even be argued’, it is perfectly clear that when Clark says, ‘it might even be argued that the period covered by this book was defined by two instances of betrayal: Englishmen’s breach of their oath of allegiance to James II in 1688-9 and George IV’s breach of his coronation oath in agreeing to Repeal and Emancipation in 1828-9,’ that is just what he means to argue.

The personal animus goes deep. After warning his more sensitive readers that the invective of Buckle’s History of Civilisation in England is ‘shocking’, Clark goes on to suggest that the only thing that stands in the way of a demolition of Plumb’s reputation is the workings of academic patronage, which, if we are to credit him, rivals the system established by Walpole and eloquently described by Plumb. Perhaps we should not dwell on all this: it may only be part of the rhetorical apparatus which surrounds an interesting argument. To take Dr Clark’s measure, we have to set aside such things, along with his irritating habit of referring to the Old Pretender as James III.

Dr Clark begins by attacking Plumb’s claim that the Whig ascendancy was a time of untroubled, unideological, patronage-based one-party government. He agrees that between the death of Queen Anne and the accession of George III, the Tories had no share in government, and were systematically discriminated against in the distribution of local patronage. But where his opponents think 1688 was decisive, he does not; where they think the propertied accommodated themselves to the Hanoverians with alacrity, he does not; where they think that proscription and patronage flattened the Tories and drove ideological conflict out of English politics, he does not. Ideological conflict raged until the Jacobite cause was utterly lost, and it was based on assumptions proper to what Clark paints as a thoroughly patriarchal society. Contrary to the textbook view that John Locke’s contractual theory of government simply demolished Robert Filmer’s efforts at assimilating the authority of kings and fathers, Locke’s Two Treatises of Government did not drive patriachal ideas out of circulation. Indeed, it was Locke who was hardly read in the early 18th century: his ideas struck no sympathetic echo in political practice or social reality, and he was in any case suspect because of his dubious views about the Trinity.

As Bentham observed, most people lived in a world which looked very unlike anything derivable from Locke. Like us, they were born subject to their parents: unlike us, 18th-century workers were commonly ‘farm servants’ who were to all intents and purposes subordinate members of a family. Clark rather overstates the intellectual merits of Filmer and other adherents of a patriarchalist defence of absolute monarchy by claiming that they did not defend the arbitrary authority of sovereigns nor derive sovereignty from fatherhood, for Filmer certainly did both. But he’s surely right that most people thought then and think now that they are simply born into their political allegiances. Still, it’s not news that Locke’s direct influence was slight. More interesting is Clark’s expansion of the old claim that the ideological resources of the Whigs were difficult to employ. They never at any stage wanted to say that in 1688 the English had cashiered their king for misconduct and appointed another in his stead. Richard Price was to say just that in 1790 and bring down the wrath of Edmund Burke, and Locke probably construed 1688-9 in that light: but the Whigs’ most reliable support was the view that James II had left them in the lurch and had left them to find the nearest (Protestant) descendant to replace him. Their strongest card was continuity.

This created another problem. The hereditary principle was closely involved with the principle of Divine Right. The Hanoverians took care to wrap themselves in the mantle of Charles I’s martyrdom, but that left them vulnerable to the Jacobites’ prior claim to the inheritance. The novelty of Clark’s account is that he insists that there was a real ideological conflict between 1688 and 1750, that Toryism was not intellectually dead and that the appeal of hereditary authority was quite sufficient to give reality to the fears of Whig ministers and their Hanoverian masters. Readers of Linda Colley’s In Defiance of Oligarchy, which gives a persuasive and sympathetic account of the Tory Party in these years, may wonder why Clark persists in saddling the Tories with so strong a tendency to Jacobitism long after 1715. The old view that it suited the Whig oligarchy to pretend that Tories were chronically disloyal is well made out by Professor Colley and not much disturbed by Dr Clark, who may himself have been led astray by an emotional attachment to James III perhaps greater than that of most 18th-century Tories.

Having rehabilitated divine right, Dr Clark goes on to demolish Dissent. As energetically as any Burke, he traces the downfall of Ancien Régime England to ‘the dissidence of Dissent’ – and in the process somewhat flattens Burke himself by turning him into an orthodox defender of establishment. In bringing the Dissenters centre-stage, he first takes care to show that Methodism was not in the least hospitable to political radicalism and quotes some passionate outrage from the pen of John Wesley on the occasion of the Wilkesite disturbances. If ‘every cobbler, tinker, porter and hackney-coachman’ takes it on himself to advise the king, then ‘the land will become a field of blood: many thousands of poor Englishmen will sheathe their swords in each other’s bowels for the diversion of their good neighbours.’ Like so many others, Wesley was less concerned to defend one government rather than another than to insist on the divine origin of government as such. If Christ had recognised earthly authority, so must we.

The cleavage came between Methodism and Evangelical Anglicanism, on the one hand, and the anti-Trinitarian wing of Dissent, on the other. Clark distinguishes ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’ Dissent along obvious lines – and argues, plausibly enough, that in spite of the exclusion of Dissenters from Parliament there was never any particular hostility towards Dissenters who subscribed to the doctrine of the Trinity. The massive resources of Anglican orthodoxy and social conservatism shut Deists, Arians and Socinians out of political society. Not until late in the century did Dissent provide the basis of political radicalism: but from the 1780s onward the unholy alliance of plebeian radicalism and heterodoxy was established, and in the end it subverted the Ancien Régime. For all that opponents of the Whig Interpretation are opposed to present-centred, evaluative histories, it’s plain enough that Dr Clark has written as present-centred and as evaluative an account as any: it’s just that, like Burke in 1790, he wants us to pity the plumage and forget the dying bird, to keep our eyes on what was lost in 1828-9 and shut them to what was gained.

Reading Pocock alongside Clark, one might wonder whether they were writing about the same century. Clark’s Whigs have trouble appealing to hereditary principles of legitimacy, Pocock’s have trouble working out whether to present themselves as men of virtue or to stand on the principles of commercial progress and the liberties of a polite but not necessarily virtuous society. Pocock mentions the place of religion in 18th-century politics perhaps three times in three hundred pages: Clark buries us in bishops. Pocock treats 1776 as a decisive event in English political history – and in intellectual history: Clark treats it as the event which stopped Wesley flirting with radicalism and recalled him to a properly hierarchical view of politics. The political sociology of the Scottish Enlightenment is, for Pocock, the beginning of wisdom about the 18th century: between them, Ferguson, Millar and Smith made it clear that the contest between the ancients and the moderns had decisively gone to the moderns. However much we might lament the passing of the ancient republics with their militias based on the armed freeholding peasant, their time was over. In the modern world a new conception of freedom was required: not the liberty of the active citizen, sharing in the exercise of sovereignty, but the liberty of the private man, pursuing his ends in peace. But they knew that there had been a genuine argument between the defenders of ancient republicanism and the defenders of the modern state.

In an interesting epilogue, Clark makes a bow towards The Machiavellian Moment, Pocock’s masterly summing-up of the fate of republican thought from Machiavelli to the end of the 18th century: he regrets that he hasn’t tried to take account of it but doubts that England really did speak with ‘a Machiavellian and humanist voice’ after 1688, and, illuminatingly, objects that, on Pocock’s view, ‘the terms of political debate are dictated to conservatives by radicals,’ whereas he holds that they ‘were dictated to the heterodox by the orthodox’. It is certainly true that in Pocock’s vision the radicals are always on the attack. In the one essay in this collection which has not previously been published – it’s 95 pages long and tackles ‘The Varieties of Whiggism from Exclusion to Reform’ – Pocock pretty well takes it for granted that the moral appeal of republican radicalism is hard to beat. It is, after all, a simple and attractive notion that a republic of public-spirited and brave citizens who are economically invulnerable to their social superiors will preserve political liberty and political stability alike.

Indeed, what many of Pocock’s English readers may find most interesting both in this long essay and in Pocock’s discussion of 1776 is the contrast between republican theory and parliamentary theory. One of the faults of teleological history is a tendency to read the present’s concerns into past institutional practices. We are inclined to see ‘parliamentary democracy’ as the inheritor of classical democracy, but 18th-century critics of the parliamentary system drew a sharp line between a parliament and an ancient assembly. The Americans rightly thought that they were doing more than just asserting their right to representation: by separating the executive from the legislature they were creating a republican, not a parliamentary system. But constitutional Whiggism had excellent resources for defeating such aspirations, at any rate in theory: and as for the military defeat of British forces by rebellious colonists, there were plenty of opponents of the American case for independence who were none the less glad to be rid of America.

One of the most interesting of these was Josiah Tucker. He subscribed to a good many of Dr Clark’s opinions, and particularly detested the combination of Calvinism and natural rights theory which he found in Locke and Price. Over America, he was equally abusive of Burke, not because he was a sincere believer in Dissent and natural right, but because he was siding with the believers out of pure self-interest. Tucker wanted Britain to declare the colonies independent, whether they wished to leave or not; he took seriously the thought that America would soon become more populous and more powerful than the mother country, and that the seat of empire might move across the Atlantic. This would be the death of civil liberty, because the fate of democratic republics was to fall prey to aristocratic adventurers. As Walpole’s supporters had claimed forty years before, the alternative to the liberty of a commercial society was not republican virtue, but the real Rome – slave-owning, primitive and ripe for corruption and tyranny. Free trade and ‘constituted authority’ were the recipe for general liberty.

As Pocock says, this position, much of it common to writers such as Hume, who urged his readers to settle down quietly under an established regime and attend to serious matters rather than ideological illusions, ran out of plausibility at the end of the century. Though Pocock does not quite say so, the ‘Modern Whig’ interpretation of history suffered from the vices of most theories of history – indeed of most social theory – in assuming that processes which had worked in the past would do so indefinitely. So the defence of commerce, freedom and civility could rest on the idea that modern forms of property made manners gentle, softened social conflict, and reduced the temptation to seek absolute power – for reasons spelled out in Albert Hirschmann’s admirable essay on The Passions and the Interests. But the time came when the progress of the intellect led beyond an acceptance of the status quo, and, in Burke’s words, the war between talent and property broke out. New variations on the republican daydream regained their appeal, and new defences of the liberty of the moderns had to be assembled.

Both Clark and Pocock repay careful reading, and indeed careful rereading. The sweep of some of Clark’s larger claims is ill-matched by a cramped prose style, and sometimes he is wilfully opaque. But he is invariably interesting, and although he says that there is and can be no such thing as ‘the Tory interpretation of history’ he refutes himself by producing it. It is an original and distinctive view of the 18th-century world – and a valuable reminder that history can be written from the standpoint of the defeated and the obsolete as well as from the viewpoint of those to whom the future belonged. Professor Pocock falls much more easily on the ear: save when he is trapped into discussing paradigms or the distinction between langue and parole in the context of political theory, he writes with great vivacity and a quick wit. These essays add to the beneficial impact he has already had on a history of political thinking that all too often leaps from Locke to Hume and from Hume to Bentham without a glance at a polemical literature which in its day was vastly more widely read than were the great thinkers. It would be absurd to suggest that liberal and Marxist historians of ideas must acknowledge themselves defeated – but they had better raise their game before the next encounter.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Read More

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences