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Response to Review no. 661

I am very grateful to Helen McCarthy for her generous, full and appreciative description of The Strange Survival of Liberal England. There is nothing which I would want to contest in her comments, and no more than one or two features of the volume which I would like to highlight in response.

Helen says that the book does not offer a conceptual prescription for historical scholarship. I agree; but the point needs a little contextualisation. The book is a tribute to Peter Clarke’s scholarship rather than a manifesto for a new order – and Clarke’s work and influence has been very non-prescriptive. Thus the introduction is less an account of a new approach than of an approach (associated with Clarke but also with others) which has long been with us. Despite its longevity it has received little attention. At least from the 1970s, scholars from within intellectual history and the history of economic thought recognised the importance of ideas and their reception in explaining political actions and outcomes. Their writing has been passed over in works focused on historiographical trends, perhaps because there was no single ‘school’ and little conspicuous display of theoretical intent. Nonetheless, those who wrote in this vein were very different from those who wrote narrative and institutional history (on the one hand) and equally different from those who wrote high political accounts in the style of Maurice Cowling or John Vincent on the other. In their enthusiasm for history which wears its theory on its sleeve, some students of historiographical trends fail to recognise such differences, describing a uniform ‘old’ political history which is as artificial and constructed as ‘Old Labour’. In fact, the best of this history has had as much influence as the consciously theoretical. By stressing the later, students of historiographical trends present an unbalanced and partial conception of recent British historical scholarship.

That said, the introduction and the volume was also meant to show that work which draws on the history of ideas has not stood still. Nor does it exist apart from other influences, engaging with theoretical history and ideas drawn from other disciplines. The contributors to the volume sit at various points on a spectrum of engagement with these conceptual ideas. That again is the way that many scholars engage with theory, and in which much scholarship evolves. Of course, some historians of ideas are better at explaining their evolving approaches than others. Peter Clarke was always rather reticent in this respect. Mark Bevir and Michael Freeden are good examples of historians of ideas who have explained their approach more fully. But as the introduction to The Strange Survival points out, even their work has received little attention from students of historiographical trends.

To some extent we were thus proscribing pluralism, with a particular enthusiasm for historical writing which places ideas and their reception at its core.

Helen also comments on the topics which were ‘left out’ of the volume. Again, I would agree that there was much which we could have included, especially given Peter Clarke’s wide-ranging scholarly interests. I would add only some brief clarification. It seemed right to recognise Peter Clarke’s contribution with essays which were written by people who had worked with him, grouped around themes from within his own work. Those themes are represented in the title of the volume (as Helen notes) but also by the sub-title: ‘political leaders, moral values and the reception of economic debate’. The coverage of these themes is of course only illustrative. There are (for example) many other facets of political leadership which might have been examined in addition to the few examples studied in the book. There are many other aspects of political economy and other economists than Keynes who might have featured. The contributors were chosen by Ewen Green from people close to Peter Clarke who he felt could contribute to a cohesive volume. They then chose topics in accordance with their expertise and with the themes of the book in mind.

One of the gaps which Helen gently identified needs to be more fully recognised. She rightly notes that the book could have contained an essay on feminist political economy given the richness of debate on this subject in the early 20th century (and for that matter, the richness of subsequent historical writing on the subject – Susan Pederson’s work is a good example). But gender has not been a conspicuous element of Peter Clarke’s work (nor of the work of other contemporaneous historians of ideas, like Michael Freeden). The political extremes (another of the gaps in the book’s coverage which Helen rightly identified) were there, but as evils to be countered. Few progressive historians, least alone Clarke, would deny the importance of either gender or the polarisation of politics between the wars. But it remains the case that writers on progressive politics have tended to study a world of nice chaps, in which both gender and the political extremes do not really feature.

Nonetheless, there is no reason why those rooted in approaches similar to Clarke’s should not consider either of these themes (some – including students supervised by Clarke – have indeed done so). And a volume which ranged more widely, and risked the hostility of the publisher and reviewers seeking cohesion, might indeed have included these important scholarly areas. For The Strange Survival of Liberal England is not just about the longevity of a (moderate) political creed, associated with a series of (male) political thinkers. It is about the less than strange survival of a flexible approach to intellectual history, and one which retains considerable value as a mechanism for discussing the past.