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Modern British political historians have spent many decades puzzling over problems about ‘ideas in politics’. The label once described studies of the structural interrelation between political ideas, policy making and political practice, but it has since become a looser shorthand for intellectually oriented work on British political culture. The shift has helped spur historians to think in new ways about the global, and especially the imperial, dimensions of British politics.
The difficulty is that this internationalised scholarship is radically fragmented. We know that the British political classes engaged closely with (among other things) democracy in America, constitutional developments in France, and theological innovations in Germany; that the empire mattered in British politics and thought; and that ideologies like suffragism and socialism responded to exchanges of ideas across borders. But what happens when we try to conceptualise the general shape of ‘ideas in politics’ in its international contexts? How do we relate it to wider systemic shifts and interpretive issues, particularly in connection with Britain’s nineteenth-century era of global dominance?
A defining feature of nineteenth century British politics was the multiplication of international connections, as new technologies emerged, and as correspondence over distance became more regular and reliable. Britons were increasingly able to participate in genuinely transnational political causes, like the anti-slavery movement, and these shifts profoundly influenced female political participation and proto-feminism. London, as the political centre of Britain’s empire-state, became a hub for global political argument, especially in the first two thirds of the century. Given its liberal laws of asylum, European refugees like Kossuth, Marx, and Metternich also found themselves congregating in Britain.
The challenge is to work out precisely how, and how much, international contexts mattered in the formation of political visions and decisions. There is much potential to misjudge and to be misled, since the political classes across nineteenth century Europe and the Atlantic world often found themselves arguing about the same problems. Debates about republicanism, democracy, industrialism and empire often followed similar courses, even when texts and actors were not in direct contact. This could be true even of obscure subjects: arguments in Britain about the merits of the Paraguayan dictatorship, for instance, ran along similar lines to Continental and American commentary. Commonalities among Western elites often predisposed them to similar political positions without cultural exchange. So working out when connections mattered, and when comparative analysis is needed, requires care.
We also need to consider the character of nineteenth century Britain’s political culture. Britain was well-connected internationally, but it was also a politically self-confident polity, and much of nineteenth century British politics turned on the conviction that Britain had things more or less right. Parliamentary and political debates in Britain were reproduced and read across the globe, and for most of the nineteenth century, other powers were more interested in discovering the secrets of Britain’s success, than vice versa. On the other hand, the ostentatiously un-ideological character of British politics may also have done something to make borrowing from abroad easier, if less explicit.
More specific forces also helped to check foreign influences. Some were intellectual, like racial attitudes and isolationist sentiment, and some social, like aristocratic traditions. Language barriers were naturally important, and while a command of French and German remained reasonably widespread among the elite, other modern languages (including Italian and Spanish) were much less common. These factors clearly narrowed the international connections that could exert influence, but there is still much work to do, particularly on how contemporaries understood global connections. It is striking that the literature on ‘ideas in politics’ has passed over the question of how contemporary actors thought about the relationships between political theory and practice. Tracing these patterns of ideas needs to be part of any wider effort to understand the material impact of international interactions on British polities.
Nineteenth century British politicians and writers did not just read works written in other European and Atlantic public spheres, but also responded directly to them, and we need to think more systematically about the international audiences for British political argument. There may be comparable benefits in scaling up further, and trying to understand international political debates as precisely that— political debates conducted internationally.
But we need to ask questions about the circumstances in which different analytic strategies make sense. Some places, like the United States, featured consistently in nineteenth century British political thinking and debate. In other cases, however, the prime mover in a debate was a core idea—autocracy, nationality, self-government—and the locations involved were illustrations. Thinking about how the nature of international political problems differed may help historians to pin down how cross-regional thinking worked in relation to broader political debates and alignments. Finally, adopting a cross-regional approach might also help to dissolve the long-standing separation of ‘imperial’ and ‘foreign’ ideas and policies into separate silos, which has always stood in the way of deeper understanding.
Modern British political history has no choice but to become more systematically aware of its international frameworks. Identifying how international connections shaped the intellectual contexts of British politics can help us to think in new ways about the environments in which political actors developed their visions, and formulated policy. Pursuing this agenda might also bring the historiography of British politics into contact with a range of revitalising literatures on other states and empires.