Back by Popular Demand: Newman, Baddiel and The Whig Interpretation of History.

This will seem incredible, but at least one commentator on Harry’s Please appears to want to read a blog post on this subject rather than on the other alternative I was considering, namely something on the fascist and homo-erotic subtexts to Wilbur Smith novels.  Doing this instead has the advantage of regurgitating some my reading for an upcoming conference presentation and getting me out of having to read any Wilbur Smith novels again.

First of all, what is the Whig Interpretation of History?  The term was first used by Herbert Butterfield his 1933 book, ‘The Whig Interpretation of History’.  Essentially, Butterfield cautioned that historians too frequently failed to examine the past under it’s own terms, and instead imported their own present concerns into their explanations of the past.  In his own words, it involved ‘… the tendency of many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasise certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.’  What Butterfield was referring to was the habit of enormously influential 19th century English historians such as Macaulay or Trevelyan to assume when discussing earlier British history that progress towards 20th century standards of liberalism was desirable and even inevitable.  They wrote as if events and people in the past could be evaluated and judged according to how ‘progressive’ or ‘obstructive’ they were to the application of Whig principles.  These were at the core of the political objectives of the parliamentary ‘Whig’ faction in British politics after the English Civil War, and opposed by the ‘Tory’ faction associated with defending royal power (both ostensibly named by their respective opponents after gangs of Scots and Irish bandits).

Whig principles began in establishing parliamentary supremacy over the arbitary power of the royal prerogative in the constitutional development of Britain from the Glorious Revolution onwards.  They were defended as traditional British political ‘liberties’ throughout the Hannoverian period, and were then extended through the process of parliamentary reform and social improvement from the ‘Great’ Reform Act of 1832 to the present.

In academic terms, this process can be called ‘teleological determinism’ – selectively determining the importance of historical events by reference to a known conclusion.  I can’t resist observing in passing that that one reviewer for a history journal objected my use of the term on the grounds that they didn’t know what it meant.  See below for a more detailed exploration of that particular dynamic, but related problems in terms of historical inquiry can also be more easily understood in concepts such as ‘anachronism’ or just simple hindsight.  Butterfield’s point was that this led to a process of selection, rationalisation and simplification to form a narrative which hindered a more accurate and complete understanding of the past

My argument against this draws heavily from opaque memories of an undergraduate paper I wrote on this subject more than twenty-five years ago, but I gambling that this should still be sufficient to bluff my way past any social scientists reading this.

Firstly, Butterfield’s remedy for the problem of Whiggism doesn’t work.  This was an immersion in a more detailed investigation of the past, which would thus suspend the reflex to simplify.  To my mind this meant an avoidance of the simplification and generalisation necessary in explanation.  Otherwise anybody expected to discuss the development of Viking kingship in 800-1000 AD would need to master every relevant detail.  Without any yardstick for establishing such relevance being set out by Butterfield, we’d all be too busy researching the construction of clinker-built longships and the interchange of ecclesiastical personel between Denmark and the Danelaw to deliver any responsible summary on a subject as complex and esoteric as Viking kingship.  No simplification means no evaluation, and therefore no useful explanation as a result.

Secondly, everybody can be a Whig.  Butterfield acknowledges the problem is a broader philosophical one, yet appears to ignore the fact such a philosophy of history is almost innate to humankind in our need for historical explanation.  It was therefore practiced by policy-makers at the time as much as by subsequent historians.  In other words, the actions of Whig politicians in the Restoration and Hannoverian periods were influenced by their own adoption of the Whig interpretation of history at the time.  To appropriate a flawed Marxist concept for a minute as an illustration, the invocation of ‘false consciousness’ does little to explain anything when that consciousness and not Marxist theory influences human behaviour.  The heroic efforts of time-travelling Marxist historians using whiteboards and dry-markers to explain to members of the Whig junto why they were really an intermediate stage of temporary bourgeois supremacy between the feudal and communist eras would have been be greeted with justifiable incredulous derision.

That a historian might decide that Whiggish teleological determinism is unacceptable becomes an ahistoric or anachronistic judgement itself when such Whigs saw themselves as operating in the light of progress towards a particular Whiggish conclusion.  The irony is that the labels of ‘Whig’ and ‘Tory’ swiftly became increasingly malleable during the 18th century on these grounds.  Bolingbroke, an early 18th century Tory who made the journey to full-on Jacobite before re-ratting back to moderate Tory, understood this when he tried to construct a moderate Toryism which could undercut the Whig supremacy of Walpole in the House of Commons by accepting key Whig achievements in the 1688 constitutional settlement.  This was even more pronounced in the fact that ostensible Arch-Tories such as Lord North and even George III could be rationally understood to be operating within, rather than challenging, the original Whig settlement of parliamentary supremacy over the monarchy.  Although that concept could prove understandably difficult for some Whigs – from Burke to Jefferson – to understand at the time.

In their case the Whig context they operated within might be a lot more restrictive than the social and political circumstances a liberal 20th-century historian would find themselves inhabiting, but it was real enough.  Such understandings were extended into the 20th century, as Churchill’s decision-making during the Second World War was clearly influenced, or at least informed, by his own Whiggish historical understanding.

Building on the preceding point, the acceptance of a Whig understanding of history could even be seen to extend into the historical understanding of contemporary Tories.  Notable examples would be the great flagships of Whig history such as the passage of the Test and Corporation Acts, Catholic Emancipation, and the Great Reform Act of 1832.  In all three instances (the first two extending suffrage and civil office-holding to dissenters and catholics, the last to reform representation in the House of Commons by eliminating corrupt pocket constituencies used for patronage and parliamentary influence by major landowners) the measures involved demanded some acceptance of their necessity by the Tory establishment.  Indeed, in the first two cases the measures were actually passed by a reactionary Tory government.  This acceptance varied from the principled moderation of people like Huskisson to the despairing tactical retreat in the face of radical demands for reform of Peel and even Wellington, but the key point is that even the Tories, in the form of their comprehension of the need to manage an otherwise unstoppable tide of mass popular resentment, didn’t just understand the Whig constitutional settlement of 1688 to be an end in itself (as Lord North or George III did), they also perceived a Whiggish progression at work in events which they needed to get on the right side of.  Even when they passionately disagreeed with it, they saw the necessity of acting in a context defined by the Whig Interpretation of History.

Finally, there is the Spinal Tap dimension to the defence of the Whig Interpretation of History:  ‘What’s Wrong with Being Sexy?’  Or, in this case, ‘What’s wrong with being a Whig?’  Frankly, Whiggism has has a much higher value on a Benthamite utilitarian scale than most other political ideologies, and it is a matter of material benefit to all that we don’t live in a Jacobite divine-right monarchy or that Whig principles in general have become the dominant if unarticulated force in British social and political life.  This is evaluation itself, like Whiggism, can be called subjective, but it remains objectively true according to any reasonable external utilitarian measure.  Progress towards liberal ideals may not be inevitable given the reaction of human agencies against it, but there are reasonable, rational and understandable reasons why the majority of people accept and support it – not just as a current state, but as an ideal to work towards which provides criteria to judge the success of policies in the present.  Whiggism in constitutional history and political culture in general did finally succeed, and it is not in itself ahistorical to seek to explain how it did so, provided a rigorous historical methodology is adopted to do so.  Even the freedom to critique Whiggism is, in the end, a necessary product of the triumph of Whig history.

Butterfield’s book was influential, but was ultimately eclipsed by more rounded yet tedious works by G.R. Elton and E. H. Carr even before the social scientists were let out of their cages and the plagues of Marxists and Post-Modernists were unleashed on the philosophy of historical inquiry in the sixties and seventies.  But Butterfield’s work ultimately fulfilled a more important purpose than simply challenging the existing philosophical basis of contemporary historiography in the thirties.  I refer, of course, to the essential dimension of internecine, ego-driven and puerile conflict conducted by academic historians against one another.  In this case, Butterfield’s principal contemporary target was Louis Namier’s British parliamentary history, and Butterfield’s book can be seen as a waspish and lightweight polemic aimed at Namier and his thesis; or in Butterfield’s words, historians who ape the ‘top hat and and pontifical manner’ of nineteenth-century gentlemen.  To gain an idea of the intellectual gravitas involved in such exchanges, I refer the reader to the rigorous academic discourses contained in Newman and Baddiel’s classic ‘History Today’ sketches.

Baddiel:        I was reading an interesting piece the other day…

Newman:     No you weren’t. You can’t read, and you can’t afford a book.

Baddiel:     Well, actually it was a piece by yourself. A rather fine piece in the Historical Inquirer. I was very impressed by it.

Newman:     Oh? Were you? Thank you.

Baddiel:     I was particularly moved by the section on page 35 about the advancement of Scottish Radicalism. I’d like to read from it if I may.

Newman:     I’d be honoured.

Baddiel:     {makes nonsensical noises like Donald Duck etc} Your best work I fear.


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