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New Left Review I/162, March-April 1987


Peter Gowan

The Origins of the Administrative Elite

A quarter of a century ago, Perry Anderson wrote a path-breaking article challenging the framework that historians had established for explaining, among other things, political change in 19th-century Britain. [1] ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review 23, January–February 1964. D.C. Moore’s study of the 1832 Reform Act, ‘The Other Face of Reform’, Victorian Studies, September 1961 pointed up the inadequacy of the old framework for understanding 19th-century political development. See also P. Anderson, ‘The Figures of Descent’, NLR 161, for a substantive reassessment. His analyses at that time, along with the work of Tom Nairn, have received reinforcement from subsequent research and offer a more plausible account than the earlier paradigm of an almost effortless rise to power of the new bourgeoisie and graceful withdrawal of the aristocracy and gentry. [2] The most important of recent works, Geoffrey Ingham’s Capitalism Divided? The City and Industry in British Social Development, London 1984, provides the first serious framework for understanding the historical relationship between the British state’s peculiar system of administrative power and the dominant sectors of British capital. Yet studies of the evolving machinery of the state, confined within the bloodless discipline of ‘administrative history’, have remained firmly within the old imagery of ‘bourgeois revolution’. [3] The first serious challenge in this field is Hans Eberhard Mueller’s Bureaucracy, Education and Monopoly: Civil Service Reforms in Prussia and England (University of California Press, 1984). There was, indeed, a fierce debate among administrative historians in the 1960s and 1970s about what had actually changed in 19th-century government, but the protagonists shared a common false perspective on the decisive issues. Above all, we will argue, they failed to grasp the nature and importance of the Northcote–Trevelyan manifesto for reorganizing the central institutions of the state and the subsequent, successful campaign to implement that manifesto. Before we examine in detail the Northcote–Trevelyan Report, however, we should review the two traditions of thought on British administrative development in order to establish the terms of the argument.

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