The Collier, by Robert Havell (1814). Image: Science and Society Picture Library
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To be continued: how much has English society changed since 1714?

Much has changed in English culture since 1710. But a new book argues our systems of power are less different than we might think.

Very Different, but Much the Same: the Evolution of English Society Since 1714
W G Runciman
Oxford University Press, 208pp, £30

Every exam season, thousands of history students are asked to look at a big event or a period of time in a nation’s past and explain it by assessing the extent to which it represented “continuity” or “change”. They thrash away at, say, the birth of the Industrial Revolution in mid- and late-18th-century Britain, striving to reach some kind of judgement about whether it would best be ascribed to a quickening of the pace of the country’s long-established advantages or to a clutch of inventors and brilliant entrepreneurs who brought on a huge and rapid change in economic life.

The better candidates scribble away, noting that the population had been growing for decades and that there had been a stable political system that was beneficial to investment long before figures such as Matthew Boulton or Josiah Wedgwood emerged and created the sinews of a more complex economy. The examinee must judiciously mention these factors, and many more, and weigh them up. Some might see this as an exercise in carefully crafting fudge but it is what a great deal of historical writing does, not merely in essays by students, and there is nothing untoward in providing the reader with a conscientious balancing act of continuity and change. It often makes for good and rich history.

Garry Runciman’s juggling of continuity and change is a much more intellectually ambitious affair. The sage of British sociology and chair of the Royal Commission on Criminal Justice in the 1990s sweeps across centuries, showing scant interest in the impact of celebrated historical figures and focusing very little on individual military, political or industrial events that others of a more orthodox disposition might consider “turning points”. He is an evolutionary sociologist, using the language of Darwin to survey 300 years of English (and sometimes British) political, economic and ideological history in 200 or so densely written pages.

Changes in education, religious practice, law and order or political affiliation are described in terms of adaptation, reproduction of mutant behaviour, variation, design advantage and co-evolution. He borrows, with attribution, from Richard Dawkins, too, using his word “meme” to describe how information-affecting behaviour is transmitted from one mind to another. Neither his method nor his vocabulary makes for a light read but they are worth the effort.

Runciman’s starting point – and his yardstick for change – is Daniel Defoe’s A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain, written in the 1720s, in which he mused at length on politics, religion, commerce and human foibles. But despite the suggestion from Runciman’s title that equal weight is given to difference and sameness in his anatomy of 300 years of English history, his principal argument is bolder than that. Yes, since Defoe, there have been innumerable changes in lifestyles and mores, as well as in Britain’s political place in the wider world, and he provides a long list of developments that would leave Defoe baffled if he were alive: the rise of sexual tolerance, the change in the roles occupied by women, the moderation of criminal punishment, the spread of literacy, the decline in religious observance, the vast panoply of technological devices at our disposal – and much else besides. However, when it comes to power, the types of people who have it and how it is distributed, Runciman yanks very hard the other way. Defoe, he claims, would have no trouble recognising our “institutional modes of coercion, persuasion and production”. In a nutshell, political, economic and ideological institutions have been impervious to substantial change.

This is an uncompromising conclusion but it is suffused neither with anger nor with a cerebral version of Russell Brand-like cynicism about all aspects of political or economic life. There is a lot of subtlety on display; for instance, over the continuing resentment of many in the working classes to the intrusion of the state on matters relating to health, schooling, housing or licensing laws.

Runciman asserts that, throughout the period, English society can fairly be described as democratic, liberal and capitalist and he is not a subscriber to the idea that all change counts for nought. He sees that universal suffrage is not, as the 19th-century French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon would have it, “a device to make the people lie” but that it led to “visible changes in both the volume and the content of legislation reflecting working-class concerns”. Yet when Runciman catalogues various elections, political manoeuvres, party splits and other assorted dramas – from the miscalculation of parliamentary tactics by Gladstone and Disraeli to Michael Foot’s unpopularity and the arrival of Margaret Thatcher and beyond – he does not see that any of these events changed the motors of power: “They had no more influence on the distribution of political power within English society than had the results of the elections in which a small, venal and wholly unrepresentative minority of the adult population had cast their votes in full view of observers in a position to bribe or intimidate them.”

I find myself quarrelling a bit with this. The arrival in Downing Street of Clement Attlee in 1945 or Mrs Thatcher in 1979 seems to me to have counted for more than Runciman is prepared to concede. The ability to go to a doctor without paying at the surgery or to buy your council house was hugely important to millions of people – and the introduction of those rights brought about something of a shift in aspects of ideological and economic power. Maybe these sorts of things do not constitute a wholesale overhaul in the structure of power but they were felt as big differences by those who experienced them. I am left unsure as to what would satisfy him that something truly fundamental had occurred – other than the scale of upheaval involved in the French or Russian Revolutions or the rise of fascism, all of which he mentions by way of contrast with the stability of the English state.

Runciman’s is a cool intellect and he wants us to concentrate on “the practices rather than the people”. So only occasionally, mostly in touching vignettes at the
end of chapters, does he get drawn into describing lives and hopes. This is a long way away from the flesh-and-blood approach of The Making of the English Working Class by E P Thompson – a book that in its own way also deals with power – or the descriptions of “ordinary” life provided recently by the likes of Jenny Uglow in her study of Britain during the Napoleonic wars and Vic Gatrell in his studies of 18th-century London.

Underneath Runciman’s fiercely analytical approach, however, you sense a deeply humane temperament, and his perspective adds much to our understanding of why, despite many outbreaks of “enmity and discord”, England’s history since the Glorious Revolution of 1688 is so different from that of the rest of Europe. He believes that once the Hanoverian succession was assured, there was almost no chance of either monarchical absolutism or military dictatorship taking hold. There were just too many impediments, institutional and cultural.

State power, throughout, has been challenged and checked. There is in Runciman not a scintilla of complacent superiority but, yes, the English are different.

Mark Damazer is Master of St Peter’s College, Oxford

This article first appeared in the 30 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Class Ceiling

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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.