Anthony King: trenchant political commentator dies aged 82

Fellow political scientists pay tribute to the scholarly achievements of a man best-known as a television pundit during British elections

January 19, 2017

Anthony King, a leading authority on British politics who combined “forensic rigour and wicked humour”, has died.

Born in Canada in 1934, he came to the UK on a Rhodes scholarship, taught briefly at the University of Oxford and was appointed professor of government at the University of Essex in 1969.

He continued working virtually full-time there well after retirement, on a rolling three-year contract renewed several times. He was the author of many books, including Britain Says Yes: the 1975 Referendum on the Common Market (1977), SDP: The Birth, Life and Death of the Social Democratic Party (with Ivor Crewe, 1995) and Running Scared: Why America’s Politicians Campaign Too Much and Govern Too Little (1997) as well as a series of election reports titled Britain at the Polls.

Even more famous was The Blunders of Our Governments (with Ivor Crewe, 2013). Though the authors were careful to exclude scandals, policies which merely proved disappointing and everything to do with foreign policy, they found no shortage of gross mistakes which cost vast amounts of money or caused much unnecessary distress.

Other political scientists stress that Professor King, who died on 12 January, was also a major scholar.

Philip Cowley, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, noted that, although Professor King was “getting a lot of coverage because of his media work – and rightly – he could also cut it with the more pukka academic stuff, and across a wide range.

"There’s a piece he did on the rise of the career politician, published in 1981, which is better than almost anything else written on the subject, still. He also had one of those styles of writing – and speaking – that make it all seem so effortless, until you try to do it yourself…”

Shamit Saggar, associate pro vice-chancellor for research at Essex, “first encountered Anthony King when he taught me as an undergraduate in the early 1980s.

"It was a time when the Labour Party was going through its biggest crises since the 1920s, and Tony was surgically able to separate short-term reasons from the real long-term problems. This revealed that Labour’s dwindling supporters were backing their party in spite, and not because, of the policies it espoused. Now there was a big insight, and one which has great purchase today.”

This was just one example, continued Professor Saggar, of Professor King’s ability to “explain the really big divisions in British politics”: “Tony liked to position himself to feel the pulse of public attitudes.

"The result was that he foresaw the makings of the SDP. He anticipated a revolution in attitudes towards women in the workplace. He could see the start of a Westminster elite getting out of touch, not just on policy questions but also on standards of conduct. And he forcefully made the point that mass immigration and joining the European club had happened with minimal public consent. These divisions have remained with us and their origins can be traced and understood, thanks to Tony.”

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, added: “Tony King was a brilliant political scientist but also a brilliant popular communicator.

"Many people knew him best as an expert on British elections, but his scholarly work went wider than that: possibly the best example being his seminal journal article on "Modes of Executive-Legislative Relations: Great Britain, France, and West Germany", published in 1976, which still gets cited today.

"Twenty years after that, he agreed to be the external examiner for my PhD viva, which he handled with his characteristic combination of forensic rigour and wicked humour.”

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