No political transformation of the past hundred years has been more profound and far-reaching than the change in the canons by which British statesmen are judged. In the late 19th century it was almost universally regarded as a test of political virtue that a politician did not make promises; he did not have a programme, he did not make deals with foreign powers, he abstained from all but the barest minimum of policy-formation and legislative change. By contrast, the political culture of the late 20th century requires from its leading actors a commitment to incessant momentum: even the most dedicated rollers-back of state power expect to go to the electorate with an elaborate and detailed shopping-list of all the new things they are planning to do. This change of emphasis inevitably distorts and discolours popular judgment of the past. Undergraduates who write essays on 'Palmerstonian diplomacy' or 'Gladstonian radicalism' or 'Disraelian social reform' are continually disappointed to find that these high-sounding soubriquets involved doing virtually nothing: and certainly, if measured against the tireless activity of the governments of Wilson and Thatcher, the titans of British political history emerge as pretty small beer.
LRB 23 April 1987 | PDF Download