Susan Pedersen

  • Structures and Transformations in Modern British History edited by David Feldman and Jon Lawrence
    Cambridge, 331 pp, £50.00, January 2011, ISBN 978 0 521 51882 6
  • The Peculiarities of Liberal Modernity in Imperial Britain edited by Simon Gunn and James Vernon
    California, 271 pp, £20.95, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 9845909 5 7
  • Classes, Cultures and Politics: Essays on British History for Ross McKibbin edited by Clare Griffiths, John Nott and William Whyte
    Oxford, 320 pp, £65.00, April 2011, ISBN 978 0 19 957988 4

Publishers hate festschrifts, but scholars love them, and this has been a good year, with the publication of collections honouring three men who have done much to shape British social history over the last four decades: Ross McKibbin, Gareth Stedman Jones and Patrick Joyce. I should say before I go any further that I too am a modern British historian: this is my subject and my tribe. I’ve met the dedicatees, most of the editors and a majority of the contributors to these volumes; a few are good friends. But for several reasons – location, intellectual formation, sex and especially nationality (I am an American, one of those interlopers whose contribution to British history has been, in Boyd Hilton’s words, ‘respectable at best’) – I stand at a slight distance from them.

The three men honoured in these books seem cast in a common mould. All were born in the early 1940s and did DPhils at Oxford, although McKibbin arrived there from small-town Australia and Joyce from a London Irish family. All position themselves on the left. All began their careers writing about the experience and politics of class, using social history to explain why a country with a working-class majority, the first industrial nation, proved so stubbornly unrevolutionary. All asked themselves, as the long night of Thatcherism stretched on, why neoliberal or market ideologies had proved so hard for the left to counter. That quest led all three to investigate the insular norms of late 19th-century working-class culture, a theme common to their most influential works: McKibbin’s The Ideologies of Class (1990), Joyce’s Visions of the People (1993) and some of the essays in Stedman Jones’s Languages of Class (1984). By the 1990s, this ‘cultural turn’ had driven Stedman Jones and Joyce to jettison Marxist determinism and to emphasise instead how available rhetorical tropes or habits of mind constrained political options. A layman might be forgiven for assuming that those two at least were on the same side.

But when David Mayfield and Susan Thorne, two young American scholars, cited Stedman Jones and Joyce as exemplars of social history’s ‘linguistic turn’ in an essay published in Social History in 1992, a tempest ensued. Jon Lawrence and Miles Taylor, two of Stedman Jones’s recent PhD students, insisted that Mayfield and Thorne had entirely misunderstood their mentor’s work, which they felt should be judged not in terms of its theoretical affiliations but according to an empiricist standard: how adequately it explained particular outcomes such as the decline of Chartism or the nature of Labour politics. Joyce and his student James Vernon then charged Lawrence and Taylor with a ‘complacent’ desire to appropriate the tools of linguistic analysis while undermining its epistemological radicalism. All the two camps could agree on was that the Americans were hopelessly wrong in conflating their work.

Reading through the collections that these adversaries have produced almost 20 years later, I was filled with nostalgia for the slanging matches of those days. Now, all is comity and mutual appreciation. Then, Vernon and Joyce accused Lawrence and Taylor of various intellectual crimes; now, Lawrence is not only co-editing the festschrift for Stedman Jones but contributing an essay to the volume for Joyce, and Joyce in his most recent book thanks Taylor for his help. Age, no doubt, has something to do with it. In the 1990s these editors were postdoctoral fellows; now, they are readers and professors. (Taylor is the director of the Institute of Historical Research and didn’t contribute to any of these volumes.) They may have realised, too, that, with the Labour Party now less socialist than Macmillanite Tories, the time for internal squabbles has passed. But their intellectual mentors, too, have moved in different directions, leaving the students with less to argue about. It’s even possible that this new politeness is a sign of mutual indifference rather than agreement.

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