May 20, 2024

Is Political History Fundamentally About the State? Part 2 (Keir Martland)

The following is the second installment of a two-part series. The first installment can be found here.

The New Political History

In the 1960s and 1970s, the emergence of history from below via the popular politics of trades unions and political parties challenged the validity and authority of traditional narratives of political history, all of which positioned the state as their central tenet. New political history rejected this and instead focused on political culture.

An example of this is provided by Alford, who examines Tudor history via the new approaches that placed emphasis on the political culture that was present in the 16th century rather than the bureaucracies and institutions of government that were in place during the era. This approach stresses a need to assess ideologies, ideas, and processes within the sovereign state in line with the social and cultural issues that manifest within a much broader focus. Alford underlines the idea that the Tudor historiography may be severely limited as a direct result of the limitations placed upon it when only mechanisms of state are analysed and suggests that taking such a radically different approach would enhance the knowledge of political history when positioned within that specific context.

By extension, Alford’s advocating for a new approach to Tudor political history suggests that the traditional narratives constructed to account for analysis were actually insufficient and has essentially failed to provide an effective structure on which to build. This lends credibility to the notion that new political culture approaches have been extremely effective in revising knowledge on the past. However, it is important to note that the demands placed on new political history approaches do not exclude the state. Indeed, although he notes that it is virtually impossible to reconstruct the institutional composition of the Tudor monarchs’ courts, there is a collective sense of importance in the administrative and judicial functions performed during that era.

In this sense, a new approach concerning cultural knowledge would effectively supplement existing knowledge relating to the state rather than erasing it. Indeed, Readman notes that historical objectivity does not necessarily relate directly to temporal distance and so political history may be examined in line with new perspectives or approaches where necessary.

The political culture element of the new political history from below has served to explain human behaviour, providing a focus that departed significantly from the state and provided a foundation on which analysis built after historical events altered the fabric of the political landscape. For example, Formisano describes culture’s stock rose in the wake of the collapse of Marxism in Europe and the Soviet Union, the rise in cultural nationalism, and the emergence of identity politics and multiculturalism. All of these events are very different in nature but contributed to the questioning of an ideological stance and theoretical framework that was a means of interpreting political histories.

Although it could be argued that Marxism actually did provide a history from below, the fabric of the political landscape is now so firmly focused on the notion of culture that it often neglects all other pertinent elements. The state is therefore present in events like the collapse of the Soviet Union and of Communism as a primary political direction, as well as the shift in a national discussion surrounding identity politics. Despite cultural elements of scholarship often avoiding the state as a point of reference, it is undoubtedly embedded within individual identities and how people relate to the world around them.

Historical analysis, particularly political history, is no longer a relatively coherent field with a range of opinions and ideas positioned in a specific area of concern, but rather has splintered to incorporate a wide range of sub-genres, such as feminist history. Indeed, politics is not “…confined to a recognizable set of institutions, practices and processes that are located within a limited domain, a domain in which a reified type of ‘Politics’ is ‘done’ solely and self-consciously by actors labelled as politicians — be they local, national or something between or beyond the two,” described by ‘The Contours of the Political,’ (255).

This acknowledges that political actors no longer have to be politicians, but can operate on a wide variety of levels, precipitating temporal shifts in terms of focus and the reconfiguration of knowledge. In effect, the political is no longer situated within traditional discourses, but is now impacted by elements of the modern world, such as digital technologies, which have facilitated the splintering of the field and raised questions of its ability to represent a wide range of interests, subjectivities, and positionalities.

Postmodern new political historical approaches have attracted criticism though and this demands analysis. For example, Formisano has roundly criticised the new political history approach to the state, arguing that it is wholly inadequate in assessing modern politics given its distinct absence of definition and theoretical grounding concerning political culture: “Its origin in comparative politics suggests implications that historians tend to ignore. Furthermore, many new cultural historians employ ‘political culture’ in ways that evade certain classic considerations of political life, namely, power and who exercises it…” (395). This criticism is rooted in the idea that the new political history has become pervasive without actually developing any substance, thus noting the progression of the approach from the 1960s through to the 1990s.

Although he does acknowledge that there is a valuable validity within the development of notions of political culture, he suggests that there is a major deficit in that the “…excessive focus on the trappings of power – rituals, symbols and other expressive mechanisms – comes at the expense of neglecting the material goals and consequences of power,” thus neglecting hegemony (395-396). Indeed, he points to a disjunction between scholarly work that focuses on states and that on subcultural distinction, but this does actively reinforce the presence of the state and its mechanisms within explorations of new political culture. Although the shift in political history towards political culture is clearly identified by Formisano, regardless of its problems and deficits that he points out, the state is still a key element of the movement away from the traditional and therefore reinforces the idea that political history is fundamentally about the state.

Formisano is not the only academic that has offered criticisms of the new political history approach. Pedersen refutes the idea that political history is fundamentally failing and yet suggests that there is a distinct lack of understanding of the state, its institutions and its structures, thus necessitating a structuralist and sociological approach that can expand on these points. The example of a positive development that she provides to substantiate this point is the resurgence of interest in the British Empire as a structuralist development and a means of examining the global dynamics of power, particularly as the state was administering various far flung nations simultaneously.

In effect, Pedersen critiques the absence of the state in the new political history approach, which has left a significant deficit in the developed understanding of how the modern world may be administered and influenced by political power. Although culture is undoubtedly important, there is a distinct need for a central point of reference and this is resolutely missing from this approach. This is evident in Carpenter’s discussion of the difference between political culture and politics:

The difference between politics and political culture is essentially the difference between political action and the codes of conduct, formal and informal, governing those actions. A history of the former treats the players of the game, a history of the latter, what the players presume the nature and limits of their game to be. Ideally the two histories should be written as one (1).

The fact that politics and political culture may be defined in such different terms highlights the notion that political history is about the state as the former is a key element of it whilst the latter is built upon perceptions of it. However, this quote does raise questions of how close new political histories are to traditional approaches, particularly high politics given the perception of politics here as a game.

Returning to 17th century Stuart England, since the collapse of both Whig and Marxist ‘high roads to the Civil War’ and the abandonment of inevitabilist ‘Rolling Stone’ approaches, the trend among Stuart historians has been to focus increasingly on short-term explanations rather than grand narratives. Such short-term explanations invariably entail a fusion of the high political with a background of political culture. There is an argument to be made, as it is by Lawrence Stone, that Charles I was executed in part due to a long-term decline in respect for the monarchy caused by a popular dislike of the court and because of the personal defects of James I and Charles I.

Political culture may also shed some light on the fortunes of courtiers and ministers. Indeed, the fall of Cromwell in 1540 or of Cranfield in 1624 demonstrated the possible fate of a parvenu. There is, therefore, some continuity here with the mediaeval period and the suspicions and jealousies aroused by parvenus, like Henry II’s Chancellor Thomas Becket. With regards to the theme of a decline in respect, mentioned in connection with the monarchy above, but here regarding the court in general, this may also possibly be linked to the rediscovery or resurgence of Tacitus in the Jacobean period. A Tacitean understanding of politics is essentially cynical and irreverent, and plays such as Sejanus His Fall may be understood as deeply subversive and working to undermine hierarchies where seemingly absurd or corrupt.

Approaches to the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688-9 are no longer tales of constitutional evolution in a struggle for liberty, but instead the actions of figures such as the Earl of Sunderland, the Earl of Danby, the Earl of Portland, John Churchill, various clergymen and diplomats and other domestic figures, all acting within a culture of anti-popery and opposition to French absolutism and expansionism.

The Reconciliation of High and Low Politics?

Despite the ostensible mutual exclusivity of high and low politics, some critics of the new political history school of thought have noted the presence of similarities between them and have advocated a reconciliation of them in order to develop a coherent and advanced approach to political history. For example, Pedersen argues that the more modern developments within the historiography actually served to neglect the state, particularly in reference to the structural composition of modern politics, instead placing greater scrutiny on the role of individual politicians and the way in which political culture actually works.

Indeed, she asserts that there are apparent links between the approach of high politics and that of new political history, both of which undermine the study of the governance of rule because “…these approaches do relatively little to help us understand the nature and reach of state institutions, and – insofar as they persuade us to take our subjects’ carefully reconstructed understandings of their political surroundings as in some analytical sense ‘accurate’ – might even lead us astray” (46). In effect, she finds both approaches severely lacking and in need of revision, but one of the major consequences of this point can be found in the positionality of the state at the very heart of political history in both the traditional and new senses.

Indeed, there are historical examples to prove that the high politics and new political history approaches are insufficient in the ways that Pedersen identifies. For example, in February 1610, King James I proposed a resolution to the monarchy’s financial troubles in the ‘Great Contract’ whereby Parliament would vote the monarch £200,000 per annum in perpetuity in return for the monarch’s abandonment of the feudal rights of marriage, wardship, and purveyance, which the landowning class who staffed the Commons found irksome. The proposition itself makes no sense without an understanding of the economy and the early modern state which was, to some extent, alive in the person of the king, but nor does the failure of the proposal. The Great Contract failed not because of the government’s failure to manage the Commons, nor because of a hostile political culture, but because the concept was itself fundamentally flawed as it did not reckon with the necessary structural realities.

One concern regarding the Great Contract was how the £200,000 would be raised. “We are undone,” cried Sir Thomas Beaumont, if the land were to be taxed so heavily. At the same time, supporters of the monarch, such as Sir Julius Caesar, thought that the Great Contract “will be the most unprofitable bargain that ever king made,” since the projected financial gain of a net £85,000 would be in the scheme of things not very great. To understand this episode, therefore, more than prosopography in a cultural context or background is required.

The Glorious Revolution must also be understood through the structuralist lens of the state, in addition to understanding the actions of individuals and the rules which bound them, and such an analysis is provided by Steven Pincus’ 1688: The First Modern Revolution. In this work, Pincus argues that while James II’s reign was a forward-looking programme of modernisation through centralisation and the pursuit of world empire, the revolutionaries sought a different path to modernisation and created a new, bureaucratic state, on behalf of commercial interests and others, taking advantage of new economic possibilities and contrary to popular belief, did effect a ‘real’ revolution which was far from conservative and thus did affect the nature of the state itself.

More recent ‘history’ also requires more of a treatment of the state than high politics and the new political history accords it. For example, the modern political climate revolves around Brexit, and both approaches may be applied to it given the extent to which individuals were key political figures in the referendum campaigns. Lane asserts that the patterns visible within political encounters may be assessed in terms of individual strategic choices within what was essentially a zero-sum game. This effectively summarises the choice Boris Johnson made to campaign to leave the European Union.

The campaigns can also be explained in terms of political culture, according to Delanty – specifically, the shift in post-material values that brought about the decline in older cultural authoritarian values and the rise of a radical cultural pluralism that gave rise to parties on the Right and to anti-EU sentiment, which also contributed to the “Leave” vote. Neither of these perspectives actually reveal anything about the structural complexities of the vote or how it has impacted upon the state when applied, which is of vital importance given the task the state is currently facing as a consequence of the referendum. Political culture will not provide an appropriate mechanism to manage Britain, so the state is of vital importance and so it highlights that political history and the political present is fundamentally about the state.

More generally speaking, a reintroduction of the state into political history is essential for historical context. The emergence of the clichéd modern nation state is a milestone on the path from the Middle Ages to modernity, along with the Renaissance, the Reformation, and inventions such as the mariners’ compass and the printing press. Precisely when Englishmen started to recognise this process of state formation, as opposed to older conceptions of the body politic, is difficult to say.

According to Skinner, the concept came into being in the 1530s around the time of Cromwell’s ‘Tudor Revolution in Government’ (G.R. Elton) while for Thomas Hobbes it was as late as the 1650s, with the Civil Wars being what convinced some men of their responsibilities to ‘the State.’ Such questions of state formation are immensely important to, though ultimately not the same as, the political culture of the period in question.

There are other commentators that reflect upon the similarities between old-fashioned high politics and the new political history. Goldman and Lawrence, for example, have both produced analyses that reinforce Pedersen’s assertion that the two can functional alongside each other and should do so. Taking Goldman first, he notes that the Victorian political historiography  has been challenged initially by the high politics emerging out of the Peterhouse School of History in the 1970s and 1980s and then by the low politics that emerged out of a social sciences perspective, although the debate between the two has suffered as a result of its polarities (8). In effect, he draws attention to the need for a mass political consciousness and a more inclusive political culture in order to draw the state and political culture together to promote a system that works for the people. This call renders the state a fundamentally important element of political history.

However, Goldman’s call for a reconciliation of high politics and the new political culture has been built upon by Lawrence, who notes that there is a real need for the lowering of boundaries that various theorists have positioned around their traditional or modern approach. He draws attention to the fact that the field of political history is fractured and demands that high and low are addressed in order to bring the two together around their shared commonalities.

Similarly, Craig asserts that high politics has attracted attention in recent years as a result of the way in which it has been caricatured, pointing out that Cowling is very similar to new political historians as a result of his outlook, which is not as cynical as it often appears to be in his opinion. As such, there appears to be a broad consensus that there are commonalities that bridge the gap between high politics and new political history based on the foundation of both approaches. Although the state is rarely mentioned in these treatments, there is a need to recognise that it is a key element of the foundation of political history because it underpins the ideological structures that informs both. This is evident in Craig’s parting remarks:

…there was never a complete fit between parliamentary and popular politics: each world has its own cultures, traditions and priorities, and effective connections can be made between them only once historians are clear what these were. Hopefully, it may soon be recognized both that new political history is not altogether new, and the high politics need not always be high (475).


In conclusion, the analysis within this essay essentially highlights the fact that theories and approaches concerning political history have significantly evolved over time but have yet to produce a coherent approach to British politics that facilitate a broad understanding of the complexities inherent within the system. Although there can be no doubt that the enhanced knowledge concerning political culture is important, it is simply not enough on its own to provide a comprehensive approach to the political historiography nor to explain the political surroundings adequately.

However, the old traditional approaches that focus on the state are crude and may not be applicable within the modern political system in as much as there are deeper concerns that move beyond religion, the economy and the dynamics of power in the political arena that it is not capable of taking into account. Despite these criticisms, both schools of thought do have their merits and essentially reinforce the notion that the political history and relevant historiography must be grounded in the state if it is to be functional moving forwards.

The state may not be the focus of political culture, but it is a part of that culture whether via structures that are in place or the facilitation of such culture via its mechanisms. For example, given that the political historical analysis that has been published to date is dependent on universities providing a forum and indeed opportunities for discussion and the production of discourse, it is not only naive but impossible to ignore the subject of the state in academic literature. The state is pervasive, and visible within educational structures, the political landscape and all other elements of life so there is a need to readdress the balance that favours political culture over it. Although political culture is important for developing an understanding of the way society essentially works today, it is dangerous to argue that the state can simply be bypassed.

In short, the analysis within this essay reinforces the thesis that the state must ultimately provide the basis for political history given its structural importance in political historical narratives. It is pervasive and impacts on culture on a multitude of levels, becoming situated firmly at the very foundation of understandings on how politics works. Although there must be a more sophisticated narrative than that appearing within traditional narratives, specifically one that is modern and therefore may be applied to today’s politics, the subject of the state cannot be avoided given that political culture cannot exist without a political system being in place.

Keir Martland reads History at Selwyn College, Cambridge where he has been elected to a Scholarship and awarded a Tripos Prize. His academic interests include the temporal and the spiritual within the history of political thought, the origins of the state, mediaeval law and kingship, the late mediaeval Church and the English Reformation, and the Gothic Revival. He is currently President of the Cambridge University Heraldic and Genealogical Society and Ecumenical and Interfaith Officer for the Fisher Society. He enjoys singing in Chapel and Chaplaincy choirs, assisting at his College Chapel, volunteering for the Order of Malta, and organising sung Catholic services as Clerk to the Cambridge Ordinariate Group.

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