Theme: Society & Culture | Content Type: Digested Read

The Future of British Political History

Joanna Innes


Gonzalo Facello

| 6 mins read

Some questions recur in a new collection in The Political Quarterly, ‘The Future of British Political History’, which I will engage with here. First, how can historians maintain an effective presence in public debate about politics in Britain? Second, how should political historians position themselves within the discipline, at a time when—it is suggested—political history is losing ground among British academic historians?

The first is a problem because, although members of the public may readily admit the need for experts to perform one part of the historian’s task—sifting through masses of source material to reconstruct what can be shown to have happened—it’s not so clear that such people have much appetite for something else that historians routinely do. That is, showing the past to be different, not just in detail, but in its basic shape and structure from what most people remember or have been told.

The best I can suggest is that historians should clearly flag that they are showing the past to be different if they are communicating to a broader audience. This will help underline this is something they do professionally.

In relation to the second challenge, I suggest that self-identified political historians might try to identify and pursue distinctive lines of enquiry, develop ways of making the political past look valuably strange to fellow scholars who come to past politics from other perspectives. Here are nine ideas, largely arising from the articles in the collection, about what some of these lines of enquiry might be.

New Ways Forward

  1. More effort could be directed towards telling the story of the changing nature of ‘politics’ and what is political, by joining up work on different times and places, and working interactively to hammer out concepts and methods.
  2. Matt Kelly’s article highlights that behind any given structure of government and politics lies a set of technologies and practices that engage with the world. Putting more effort into exploring how these practices have evolved, and continue to evolve over time and space, sounds worthwhile.
  3. More could be done to explore how ideas about past politics have come to be constructed and to acquire the label of ‘general knowledge’. Showing on what fragile foundations ‘general knowledge’ rests may help to clear the way for new accounts.
  4. Events in recent years have reminded us that politics can spin into constitutional crises very quickly. Devolution has made this a recurring theme; Brexit made it for a short time a dominant one. But the nature of the constitution, and the institutions which define it, have been changing too. There’s lots of room to frame accounts of constitutional crises in new ways.
  5. Several contributors suggest that interest in causality has declined (and should be revived). Public feeling helps to put issues on the agenda and constrain options for dealing with them, but what ultimately happens often hinges largely on manoeuvres within the corridors of power. Now that considerably more work has been done on inputs into politics beyond Whitehall and Westminster, it would be worth revisiting older debates about the interaction between high and low politics. How can this be conceptualised? How has it changed over time?
  6. Why do certain issues become ‘politicised’ at certain moments? What kinds of processes are involved? And what are the effects on ‘ordinary’ people when they find themselves catapulted onto unfamiliar and undesired ‘political’ terrain? Though there’s an available narrative about empowerment, about new avenues opening up and new skills being learned, it seems unlikely that that’s the only story to be told.
  7. Peter Sloman notes that some political identities may be entrenched, others less so. There would be value in conducting two-way analyses of political identity-formation. Although people bring their values to the making of their political identities, they do that within a space which affects how they go about it.
  8. Much of the above is premised on to the possibility of drawing lines between what is and isn’t political, even if this line moves. Liam Liburd’s stimulating article echoes several other contributors’ in emphasising the fuzziness of that line viewed from within a particular ‘ordinary-life’ context. To black Britons political forms of racism and discrimination seamlessly into manifestations of similar things within other structures of power. This is worth emphasis. But it is still compatible with pursuing the question of what might be specific about the political, and what difference politicisation might make.
  9. Finally, contributors who interest themselves in the relation between politics and ‘ordinary’ life posit difference, but also interaction, between political and everyday language. It would be worth exploring further how politicians navigate between language registers, and perhaps in doing that change how both experts and the public talk.

I write from the margins of this field. From this point of view, the organisers’ efforts seem worthwhile, producing contributions that are sparky and thought-provoking. I hope readers of our collection have the same experience.

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    Joanna Innes

    Joanna Innes is Professor Emeritus of Modern History at the University of Oxford and a Senior Research Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford.

    Articles by Joanna Innes