From Belloc to Churchill: Private Scholars, Public Culture, and the Crisis of British Liberalism, 1900-1939

Synopsis

Linking historiography and political history, Victor Feske addresses the changing role of national histories written in early twentieth-century Britain by amateur scholars Hilaire Belloc, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, J. L. and Barbara Hammond, G. M. Trevelyan, and Winston Churchill. These writers recast the nineteenth-century interpretation of British history at a time when both the nature of historical writing and the fortunes of Liberalism had begun to change. Before 1900, amateur historians writing for a wide public readership portrayed British history as a grand story of progress achieved through constitutional development. This 'Whig' interpretation had become the cornerstone of Liberal party politics. But the decline of Liberalism as a political force after the turn of the century, coupled with the rise of professional history written by academics and based on archival research, inspired change among a new generation of Liberal historians. The result was a refashioned Whig historiography, stripped of overt connections to contemporary political Liberalism, that attempted to preserve the general outlines of the traditional Whiggist narrative within the context of a broad history of consensus. This new formulation, says Feske, was more suited to the intellectual and political climate of the twentieth century.