Theme: Political Ideas | Content Type: Digested Read

The Making of Empirical Political Science in the UK: Jean Blondel, David Butler and Peter Pulzer

Alan Ware


Marjan Blan

| 7 mins read

Between late 2022 and early 2023, three of the scholars who had founded the empirical study of politics in the United Kingdom died. Jean Blondel, David Butler and Peter Pulzer were all born before 1930. The men were in their thirties by the mid-60s when the British university system was expanding. I had the good fortune to meet Butler, Blondel and Pulzer at different stages of my own career in political science, and to discuss politics with them.

Between them, Butler, Blondel and Pulzer had an exceptional impact, both on how the empirical study of politics developed in the UK and on how it could connect with political science elsewhere.

David Butler

Butler was an early British ‘television don’: by the 1964 general election he was a household ‘face’. He had close links to politicians and civil servants; one informal group he founded in the 1980s was the Redcliffe-Maud Society. It included academics and senior civil servants. In many ways it epitomised an important aspect of Butler's approach to his work, which was via personal contacts.

This approach was made possible in part because he had an academic post at Nuffield College that did not require him to teach. He could concentrate on building up his extensive knowledge, and on other work related to his research. By the mid-1960s both the university and the wider study of politics benefitted from the profile his media appearances generated. As an academic subject, the study of politics was still in its infancy, and Butler’s influence was huge.

When Butler conducted research alongside other major scholars the results could be truly outstanding. His 1969 book, Political Change in Britain, co-authored with the distinguished American political scientist, Donald Stokes, won prizes. The two men’s different specialisms combined to make the book essential reading for anyone studying voting behaviour.

Butler was kind and friendly, but there were aspects of his personality that might confound those who did not know him well. My friend the late scholar Nelson Polsby enjoyed his visits to Oxford from Berkeley. However, at one drinks reception we both attended, he came over to me, saying: ‘I've just offended David Butler, but I don't know what I could have done. I was talking to him, and then he looked over my shoulder, and walked away without saying anything more. What had I done?’ I answered him immediately: ‘Nelson, he does that to everyone… if he sees someone else he wants to talk to, he will just abandon you; he'd do the same with the Queen.’

Jean Blondel

David Butler and Jean Blondel were, in one respect, polar opposites. Butler had a massive store of knowledge about politics and of how public policy was made, especially in Britain. However, his knowledge of the intellectual frameworks in which that knowledge might be analysed and applied was more limited. By contrast, Blondel lacked Butler's massive volume of factual knowledge, but he had an enthusiasm for developing frameworks.

His fascinating 1969 book was full of discussions about the various social and political factors that could explain how political systems operate. A very different kind of monograph from Butler and Stokes's Political Change in Britain, it too would help move central elements of the discipline further away from its founding triumvirate of law, history and philosophy.

Blondel's most significant contribution arguably lay elsewhere: building the Department of Government at Essex University, which became the leading politics department in the country. It was not just Blondel's selection of academics well on their way to becoming established—Tony King and Brian Barry included—that mattered. The well-known secret for growing a department has always been not to let standards drop—and this was practised at Essex. Under Blondel the Essex Summer School in Data Analysis began and in 1971 the British Journal of Political Science was launched, rapidly becoming the leading political science journal in the UK.

Yet, perhaps Blondel's greatest achievement was his role in the founding of the ECPR in 1970. He was frequently present there, even after moving to the European University Institute in 1984.

Peter Pulzer

Like the French Blondel, Peter Pulzer had been born abroad, in Vienna, but come to the UK as a child refugee from the Nazi regime. Unlike Blondel, he made every effort to appear thoroughly English, except in his intellectual interests. Like Blondel and Butler, he was kind and thoughtful to colleagues and students, and excellent company.

While the ECPR was significant in strengthening personal links among scholars based in the UK and continental Europe, Peter Pulzer helped rebalance the thrust of British scholarship on politics elsewhere. He was a comparativist, with expertise in both German and Austrian politics.

A significant aspect of Pulzer's teaching and research at Oxford, from his arrival in 1962, was that he incorporated into his Cambridge background of history a firm understanding of how politics could be studied. Perhaps the most well-known instance of this was his publication in 1967 of Political Representation and Elections in Britain. One sentence in it would become arguably the most quoted of any in undergraduate essays on British politics for at least two decades: ‘Class is the basis of British party politics; all else is embellishment and detail’. This phrase came to define a whole way of viewing UK politics.

Pulzer facilitated the emergence of an empirical study of politics in Britain that would later avoid some of the fate of historical studies in the United States. Generally, historians of Britain did not abandon political history and at least some of those who had been historians initially could still embrace it productively as they studied politics. Pulzer was the clearest exemplar of that. He became a good friend of mine. He made the study of politics look easy, and was someone for whom fair treatment was extremely important, which was perhaps the attribute of his that I most admired.

Between them, Butler, Blondel and Pulzer had an exceptional impact, both on how the empirical study of politics developed in the UK and on how it could connect with political science elsewhere.

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