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Response to Review no. 363

Normally it is political scientists who attempt to produce grand models, only for historians to counsel caution by pointing out that the empirical reality is more complex.  So it is a something of a turn-about to find Dr Hilton, in his interesting review of my book, complaining that I do not sufficiently generalise about the political attitudes to social and cultural changes.  I think he is correct in saying that I should have given a rather fuller concluding analysis of the interaction of broader cultural or political ideas with the story of the politics of drink.  However, the final section of my book (pp. 204-12), upon which he does not comment, addresses some recent models that political scientists have put forward intended to make sense of the relationship between changes in ideas and changes in policy in the context of the drink issue. 

However, Dr Hilton, a cultural historian, and I, a political scientist, hold rather different perceptions of the relationship of ideas, ‘moral frameworks’ and cultural attitudes to the policy process.  I agree with him that these are important factors, but I hesitate to ascribe to them the role that he seems to suggest.  Implicit in his review is the assumption that they impact clearly upon political reforms and policy-making and influence the beliefs of decision makers.  In my study I aim to show how such factors are indeed significant, but also that they were continually mediated, in complicated ways, by political elites, both bureaucratic and party political.  A theme of my study is that these elites often had a remarkable degree of autonomy in framing policy, both for political advantage and for bureaucratic self-interest.  Moreover, they were able from time to time to manipulate the terms of discourse by which the politics of drink was carried out.  The classic case of this was Lloyd George in the First World War, but there are many other examples to be found.  Moreover, as the ‘new institutionalist’ school of writers has suggested, bureaucratic institutions themselves can internalise intellectual paradigms; hence they can shape ideas and determine the capacity of groups both to influence policy and to respond to society pressures.  Examples of this in my study were the Home Office’s passive and negative attitude to the licensing question, the Central Control Board’s interest in social engineering after 1915, and the Ministry of Town and Country Planning’s perception of the role of the state in influencing leisure pursuits.  When such bureaucratic bodies clash, there may be a conflict not merely of self-interest but of policy ideas and assumptions.  If we ignore these factors, we will end up with a rather unidirectional conception of the political and governmental process, whereby political and governmental elites respond to what Dr Hilton terms the ‘social history of ideas’.  This would be somewhat reminiscent of the way in which old-fashioned ‘Whig’ historians could portray the political developments of the nineteenth century as almost entirely the response to liberal, democratic pressures ‘from below’. 

A further advantage of adopting a ‘high politics’ or policy-making approach to the question of social policy is that it illustrates the interactions of a range of ideas and belief systems.  Attitudes towards alcohol itself, mainstream political ideologies, beliefs about the political process, economic doctrines and a range of attitudes relating to other policy areas – town planning, law and order, public health, education,  and so on, are all to be found both shaping the course of events and being used by interested parties.  A political approach, by stressing the range of competing pressures, calculations and considerations can help the historian appreciate the complexity of the clash of ideas, no less than of political forces.  Just members of the political elite are influenced by changes in the popular climate of opinion or by shifts in political ideologies, so they in turn can successfully and proactively shape the discourse of a problem or an issue.  A classic case of this is provided by the success of the alcohol control lobby after 1960 in deliberately shifting debate about alcohol consumption to one in terms of health (a shift facilitated by the fact that the locus of  their influence had shifted from the Home Office to the Department of Health).  One only has to glance at the plethora of articles in Sunday newspaper supplements and the like to see how this has influenced popular culture and attitudes towards drinking. 

Political history, compared to social and cultural history, seems to be deeply unfashionable these days.  This is a pity.  Certainly, in the past it tended to be an unduly narrow sub-discipline.  However, there is now the opportunity for historians to benefit from some exciting approaches by political scientists who are interested in examining more carefully the complicated interactions between social and economic change and intellectual developments on the one hand, and bureaucratic and political actors on the other hand.  In particular I would instance the concepts of ‘policy learning’ put forward by Heclo and Majone, ‘advocacy coalitions’ by Sabatier, ‘policy paradigms’ by Hall, ‘policy windows’ by Kingdon, ‘policy agendas and instability’ by Baumgartner and Jones, and ‘policy evolution’ by John.(1)  Just as political and administrative history cannot afford to ignore intellectual and social history, so the latter will be the poorer if it neglects insights from the study of ‘high politics’.


1. H. Heclo, Modern Social Politics in Britain and Sweden: from Relief to Income Maintenance (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1974); G. Majone, Evidence, Argument and Persuasion in the Policy Process, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989); P. Sabatier, ‘An advocacy coalition framework of policy change and the role of policy-oriented learning therein’,  Policy Sciences, 21 (1988), 129-69;  P. A. Hall, ‘Policy paradigms, social Learning, and the state’, Comparative Politics, 25 (1993), 275-96; J. W. Kingdon, Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies, 2nd edn (New York: Harper Collins College, 1995); F. R. Baumgartner & B. D. Jones, Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993); P. John, Analysing Public Policy (London: Pinter, 1998).  For my discussion and criticism of some of these models see: J.Greenaway, ‘Policy learning and the drink question in Britain, 1850-1950’, Political Studies, 46 (1998), 903-18.