<<

. 4
( 52 .)



>>

a society of states À the multiple monarchy of the Three Kingdoms
itself, Atlantic and Indian empire, or the European republic of the ius
gentium, for examples. Richard Tuck and David Armitage are developing
a new historical narrative,9 with Grotius rather than Hobbes as its
pivotal figure, which studies thought and discourse less about the internal
structure and problems of the political community than about its
relations with other states and communities À some of them, in an age of
empire, not organized as states at all. This approach is not ideologically
neutral; it has to beware of a market-driven post-modernism which denies
human autonomy by rendering it contingent, but it is historiographically
valuable and promising.
We now need to examine, with reference to different periods, with
what centres of cultural production writers in the British Kingdoms
exchanged texts and ideas about church, state and history; of what other
European political societies they were aware and what they knew about
them; of what writers in these societies knew in their turn about
them. This is to ask that the idea of ˜Europe™ be rendered specific
instead of being used to deny specificity. It also opens up the field of
a European respublica litterarum in which political discourse was con-
ducted both nationally and transnationally. It invites attention to how
literati responded to war, which was endemic and persistent throughout
`
the period; not surprisingly, Suarez, Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel wrote
variously on war and peace, just war theory, the law of nations, the right

9
Tuck 1978; Tuck 1993; Tuck 1999; Armitage 2000; Armitage 2004a.
The History of Political Thought 15
of self defence, the conduct of war, and what came to be called inter-
national law. The idea of ˜Europe™, like that of ˜empire™, changed greatly
during the eighteenth century. The ways in which it changed will be the
source of a valuable inquiry, but one to be conducted both within and
well beyond the conventional boundaries assigned to the history of
˜British™ political thought.10
Those boundaries are being further expanded, in rather different
directions, by the increasing recognition of a problem of general impor-
tance to the historian: that of the literary genres in which the activities
termed ˜political thought™ have been conducted, and of the disciplines
by which their history is to be studied. In the last two decades,
the study of English literature has been increasingly historicized and
has become increasingly aware of its subject™s political character and
context. The approach assumes no chasm between literature, conven-
tionally understood as poetry, plays and, later, novels, and the ˜literature™
of political thought. Still, the assumptions and objectives of the two
disciplines have not (and should not) become identical, and perhaps
this is why the methodologies of the ˜Cambridge school™ and ˜the new
historicism™ (if this terminology may still be used) have yet to be
brought into close confrontation or collaboration. The problem might
be approached by stating it as one of genre. The literary forms in which
˜political thought™ was conducted were typically À or so we have chosen
to suppose À the pamphlet, the tract and the treatise, to which documents
of a more public character, such as statutes, proclamations, confessions,
sermons and articles, must on occasion be added. We enlarge this cate-
gory by taking account of a print culture in which ˜pamphlet™ literature
at times exploded uncontrollably; the radicalism of the unlicensed press
in George Thomason™s London is currently out of fashion,11 but will
surely not long remain so.
What may be said of all these literary forms is that they are intensely
and immediately disputatious; they rebut the positions of others and
expect rebuttal in their turn (even when the anticipation takes the form
of censorship and prohibition). If we now turn to the classic categories
of ˜literature™ as an art form À the poem, the play and later the novel À
we may find that these are no less political. For example, the plays of
Shakespeare are particularly rich explorations of the nature of political


10 11
Cf. Hay 1968; Pagden 2002. Reasons for this are explored in Mendle 2001.
16 j.g.a. pocock, gordon schochet and lois g. schwoerer
power, resistance, counsel and republican thought. Also drenched with
political ideas is the poetry of Donne, Milton, Marvell and Dryden.
Such literature may even employ the same political languages as the
pamphlet, tract and treatise, but the patterns of disputation are not
so obvious. It is not impossible to write a poem or play in response to
another À are there instances here of counter-rebuttal? À but the patterns
of response will be, in every sense, less immediate. It may be that at this
point the literary scholar focuses on the ˜literary™ techniques À irony,
narrative, dramatization À to be found in the tract or treatise no less
than in the poem or play, and the two disciplines begin to merge in
a study of rhetoric. This is a field of methodological enquiry in which
a great deal of progress has been made but in which a great deal yet
remains to be done.
As we understand that language is conscious art as well as political
message, found equally in the tract, the poem and the play, there appears
the possibility of material arts conveying such messages by means that
are not verbal at all, though they may be converted into discourse. This
approach assumes that the object, whatever it may be, is a ˜text™ situated
in a ˜context™ which is to be read, in ways different from a verbal text,
to be sure, but to the same end of discovering meaning. That meaning
often includes political ideas and messages, which may be conveyed by
tapestry, portrait, sculpture, painting, or architecture. For example, the
emblem-panels of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, are deeply imbued with
political ideas. The portraits of such sixteenth-century figures as Robert
Dudley, Earl of Leicester, are also saturated with political meaning.
In these cases, however, there remains (as it did in that of poetry) the
question of where the conversation initiated by the message is to be
found, and how we are to validate the statements we make about it.
It would seem that we need to retain the presence of highly organized
speech, writing and typography, capable of both criticism and disputa-
tion, if we are to have histories of intellectual activity at all. It is at this
point that historians of British political thought may use the perspective
and methodology of cultural historians to enhance understanding of
intellectual history, and vice versa.
Law, both as a means of maintaining social and political order and
as a vehicle that carries political values and represents the polity, was
a hallmark of politics in the early-modern period. England and then
Britain was transformed from a polity in which the humanistic pers-
pective of counsellors was gradually replaced by the more specifically
lawyerly understandings of politics that went back at least to Fortescue
The History of Political Thought 17
in the fifteenth century. The growing domination of politics by lawyers
led to an increasing tendency to look to the law and its principles to
solve political problems. That was the peculiarly English common law,
an historically rooted, evolving, and unmodified mixture of legislation,
practice, and judicial interpretation. This common law, as the embodi-
ment of the historical wisdom and constitutional practice of England,
with the natural rights of liberty and property that were already part
of the English constitution, was asserted time and again as the nation™s
primary defence against what were seen as governmental and especially
monarchical excesses. Once an issue between the crown and the nobility,
by the late sixteenth century, conflicts about the proper reach of political
power were between the crown and its supporters and parliament,
the latter increasingly seeing itself as the representative of the ˜people™.
˜The law™ and its history thus run unbroken through the history of early-
modern British political thought; but as important as it was, the law
alone was incapable of resolving constitutional conflicts about the nature
of political power, for those conflicts often called in question the very
possession of the law and the legitimate ability to interpret it.
Study of the law as central to early-modernity long preceded (and in
part inspired) the history of British political thought as a field. Other
major fields of inquiry have grown up alongside and in tandem with
this field, perhaps most fruitful among them the history of women and
gender. An enormous amount of work has been done in the last decade
by feminist historians and literature specialists in identifying early-
modern European and English women political thinkers, uncovering
their writings (much of it still in manuscript form), presenting their views
and assessing their significance. At a level of theory, we have begun
looking beyond what women had to say about the distinction between
private and public, which is central to the political theory of gender
throughout most of its history. In fact women wrote in sophisticated and
complex terms about the political issues that pervaded the early-modern
era, such as the separation of church and state, toleration, different
constitutional forms and the contract theory of government.12 In the
historical narrative, a sequence of phenomena seems to be emerging
throughout the era. One rich and well-documented debate is about
queenship, imposed upon the English and Scottish monarchies during
the half-century when the reigns of a series of female sovereigns gave

12
Smith 1998a.
18 j.g.a. pocock, gordon schochet and lois g. schwoerer
rise to the derogatory phrase ˜the monstrous regiment of women™.
Elizabeth™s reign is evaluated, as it was by contemporaries, in these terms,
and it can be asked whether the restoration of masculine rule by James VI
and I returned either monarchy to what it had previously been.13
There were, moreover, the women prophets of the English
Interregnum, whose history carries on into that of Quakerism,14 and
after them the remarkable group of philosophers À Anne Conway,
Mary Astell, Damaris Cudworth Masham À whose Platonism and
anti-Platonism bear on the changing relations of church and state at
the end of the seventeenth century.15 As we move into the politeness and
sociability of the eighteenth century, it may be that ˜the rise of the
social™ offered women a new level of visibility, no longer rigidly domestic
if it was not yet political;16 but at the end of the age stands the figure of
Mary Wollstonecraft, warning in post-Rousseauean terms that this was
not going to be enough.17 It will be increasingly important to see what
happens to the history of political thought when we deepen our attention
to what such women had to say within and about it.
The ˜Cambridge method™ as applied to the various fields we have
described does not always lead to the construction of sequential narratives
but rather to the recovery of past contexts in which texts are situated
and their character or intention and performance reconstructed; to this
extent its procedure has been archaeological. Much of the work of
historians of British political thought could not unfairly be summarized
as the unending pursuit of contexts and texts to place in them, to which
no theoretical limit is discerned. This is to enrich the past in its diversity,
and to enhance our understanding of an activity, ˜political thought™,
by revealing in how many ways it has been conducted and how many
things it has been. But the synchronic needs to point the way into the
diachronic, and we should continue to pursue the afterlife of texts: their
reception, interpretation, and passage from expressing the intentions
of their authors À which they may perpetuate À to articulating the
understandings of their readers. It is here that have been built up the
more or less mythic histories of ˜great texts™ and their ˜influence™ that
the ˜Cambridge method™ came into being to replace; but the creation
and persistence of those myths are part of the history we are studying.
The possibility of narrative increases as the history under study
becomes less one of acts and more one of ˜languages™. The existence

13 14 15
McLaren 2000. Mack 1992. Broad 2002; Springborg 2005.
16 17
Taylor and Knott 2005. Taylor 2003.
The History of Political Thought 19
of a ˜language of political thought™, changing as it is used by authors
over time, can in principle be validated, and there comes into view the
possibility of a history À going on in how many concurrent contexts? À in
which languages change and affect one another, come into use and
pass out of it, and it is possible to look through them to the political
experience that at least claims to justify them. There should in principle
be a subjective history of English or British politics consisting less of
what the historian holds to have happened than of what contemporaries
thought was happening and how they organized their articulation of
experience at various discursive and theoretic levels. Such a history might
be followed across the whole early-modern period: what narrative
sequence it contained might prove to be a narrative of historical change.
´
The possibility of long-term processes, taking place in a moyenne duree,
is currently unfashionable but should not be dismissed.
There remains the dwindling but probably not vanishing band of
political theorists who make use of historically surviving or reconsti-
tuted materials À texts, languages, philosophical positions À in pursuit of
investigations of their own, by definition not those of the history but
of the ˜theorist™. They act in history and should be conscious of doing
so; like most actors in history they do not act as historians, but change
history by acting upon it in other ways. Since they are aware of history,
the investigations of theory they construct will generate histories of
their own activity, and will also lead to new reassessments of the history
they share with others. Though they will never write histories in the
˜Cambridge™ manner, it is possible to suppose a philosopher À an Arendt
or a Foucault, for example À who changes our perception of history
by pointing to changes which ˜philosophy™ has brought to light, but
historians now perceive to be validatable. After some decades practising
the history of British political thought, we can report that while this
description has become increasingly independent of political theory and
philosophy, its relation with these modes of enquiry has been greatly
changed and questioned, but has not disappeared.
part i
British Political Thought and History
chapter 2

Thinking about the New British History
John Morrill




i
Almost every historian believes but struggles to prove that knowledge
of the past helps us to understand the present. It is so much easier to
see how experience of the present helps us to understand the past. It is
therefore no surprise that interest in the British past as against the English,
Welsh, Scottish and Irish pasts has grown exponentially over the past
25 years. In part this recovery of a sense of the integrity of the ˜British™,
˜British and Irish™, ˜archipelagic™ past (the instability of nomenclature
is itself revealing of the contended nature both of the process of
recovery and of what is recovered) is the result of the debate that is raging
about the future shape of the United Kingdom, in the face of devolu-
tionary (and separatist) political and cultural movements in Scotland
and Wales (even England), and in the face of uncertainty about the
future relationship between the North of Ireland and (a) Britain (b) the
Republic of Ireland. In part it is also a result of the soul-searching that
has been going on across Britain and Ireland about whether their future
destiny lies primarily as part of ˜Europe™ or in relation to the Anglophone
diaspora, not only (or not particularly) the British Commonwealth but
in a special relationship with the United States. In part it also results
from the natural desire of historians to move on from worked-out seams
to open up new ones: for example, from theories of historical causation
rooted in the dynamics of class dialectic and conflict to ones based on
ethnic and cultural conflict (itself connected with the previous points).
And partly it is a result of specific scholars laying down challenges
and proposing new conceptual frameworks.

ii
The new British history is a growth industry, but it is important to
start by noting that the form and content of this history is far from
23
24 john morrill
agreed. Historians, however, merely fall into camps that reproduce
distinctive frameworks of reference that can be found in the history

<<

. 4
( 52 .)



>>