History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America: From the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan

A. W. Purdue finds a study of a neglected area of the 20th century complex and penetrating

May 21, 2009

Do historians make history? Reba Soffer's thesis is that 20th-century conservative historians did much to establish a conservative interpretation of Britain's past that permeated national consciousness and underpinned the understanding of the present.

The British historians she concentrates on "as central figures in the definition, representation, and propagation of conservative thought" are not necessarily those who were most influential within the profession - otherwise Sir Lewis Namier, for one, would certainly have had to be included - but are those who were "public intellectuals" and who used their historical perspectives to influence contemporary politics and public opinion. The chosen four are Arthur Bryant, Keith Feiling, F.J.C. Hearnshaw and Herbert Butterfield, all of whom exercised considerable influence from the Great War to the 1970s upon politicians and the British public, helped to construct concepts of national identity and forcefully argued for the relevance of their views of historical development to the problems of the day.

Bryant, who never held a permanent academic post, exercised his influence via his bestselling books and his journalism and, although often seen as catering to a middlebrow readership, his admirers included prime ministers such as Labour leaders Clement Attlee and Harold Wilson. Hearnshaw was also a prolific writer and was almost a conservative version of R.H. Tawney in his enthusiasm for reaching out from the universities to a wider public with public lectures and his work for the Historical Association. Feiling's histories of the Conservative Party provided the underpinning for the party in which his "One Nation" views would be predominant into the time of Edward Heath. Butterfield had the greatest influence on historians, in his work on 18th-century political history and on the philosophy of history and in his influence, as master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, on younger historians.

The problem is that although all were consciously conservative, they were very different as historians and as conservatives. Bryant's writing was imbued with a strong tinge of nostalgia for the rural England that was passing and he was almost a Tory radical in the vein of William Cobbett in his distaste for industrial capitalism. Hearnshaw's conservatism was forward-looking, meritocratic and urban. Feiling's interpretation of history identified itself with paternalist "Tory democracy". All were Christians but Butterfield's view of history was explicitly based on his faith, which made him wonder whether broad theories of historical development or even moral judgments did not deny divine providence.

When Soffer turns to America, she claims conservatism had little lineage there before the mid-20th century. This is a sweeping claim, for the ideas of an agrarian society of freeholders or of a revolt by freeborn Englishmen against the "tyranny" of a British government can be seen as conservative as well as radical. The dominant historical narrative was, nevertheless, "progressive". She argues that from about 1940 there was an export of the views of British conservative historians via the American historians Peter Viereck and Russell Kirk, who "superimposed British conservatism upon recalcitrant American development", while others, such as Daniel Boorstin, developed a more home-grown interpretation of US history, twinning conservatism with exceptionalism.

This is a dense, complex and penetrating book that explores a neglected area of 20th-century history. The relationship between historiography and changes in political attitudes is complex and Soffer does not dwell on the emergence of a conservatism that drew upon liberal individualism and free-market economics under Thatcher and Reagan, nor upon the neoconservatism of early 21st-century America, the latter more the apotheosis of liberalism with its missionary zeal for exporting and, if necessary, enforcing democracy and individualism than a form of conservatism. Perhaps these subjects, along with the impact of later conservative historians, will be dealt with by this author in another intellectually stimulating book.

History, Historians, and Conservatism in Britain and America: From the Great War to Thatcher and Reagan.

By Reba Soffer. Oxford University Press 368pp, £55.00. ISBN 9780199208111. Published 11 December 2008.

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