Return of the brainy natives

May 23, 1997

Linda Colley and David Cannadine tell Lucy Hodges why they are coming home.

Are we witnessing signs of a reverse brain drain, with academics coming home to an invigorated Blair Britain?

The question arises because of the decision by two top British historians, the husband and wife team, David Cannadine and Linda Colley, to return to this country. Both are professors of British history and have named chairs at ivy league universities in the United States - David Cannadine at Columbia in New York and Linda Colley at Yale - and both are coming to work in London.

The first woman fellow in history at Christ's College, Cambridge, Colley has landed one of the prestigious personal research fellowships awarded by the Leverhulme Trust. She will be based at Birkbeck College London and has been given five years of almost undiluted personal research. Cannadine is returning to be director of the Institute for Historical Research at Senate House in Bloomsbury.

It is no coincidence that we have seen the pair on television in the past few weeks. Opinionated and articulate, both are avid followers of contemporary politics, able to put a modern trend into its historical context in an arresting way. Cannadine is on sabbatical from Yale and will return to teach there in the autumn, returning finally to London to take up his new post next May. Colley will take up her new position next July.

"The institute job is intrinsically a very attractive one,'' says Cannadine, author of the highly-praised Decline and Fall of the British Aristocracy. "I like teaching history in big cities and writing history in big cities. It might provide opportunities for helping history develop in the next ten to 15 years both in terms of an academic discipline - what it is doing in London - and its broader appeal to an educated public," he says.

Colley, author of Namier and Britons: Forging the Nation 1701-1837, is more candid. She has been in the US for 15 years; her husband for nine years. They keep a home in Norfolk and come back to Britain every summer. And they have been thinking of moving for some time, she says. The reasons are partly personal. "I learned a great deal at Yale. In many ways the great US universities are tonic places from which British establishments could learn a lot in terms of the organisation of teaching, funding, admissions and recruitment."

Her present research - on empire in the 18th century - requires hours of slogging through the archives in London and other European capitals. She is also intrigued that UK universities are now much more linked to other European universities.

The couple was fascinated by the election. Like most Britons who follow elections closely, Cannadine was amazed by the size of Blair's majority and also by the intelligence and vengefulness of the electorate. "I think Blair conducted a very adroit campaign," he says. Colley believes that what has changed with Labour is the nature of leftwing ideology. The policies advocated by prime minister Blair - devolution, reform of the House of Lords, freeing up the Bank of England - are pretty radical, she thinks. It is wrong to think we are witnessing the end of ideology in politics.

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