Tory History

Alan Ryan

  • English Society 1688-1832 by J.C.D. Clark
    Cambridge, 439 pp, £30.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 521 30922 0
  • Virtue, Commerce and History by J.G.A. Pocock
    Cambridge, 321 pp, £25.00, November 1985, ISBN 0 521 25701 8

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.

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