Arecent survey in the Times Literary Supplement suggested that the writing of history in England was on the verge of a renaissance. This is only another way of saying that the progress of British historiography in the last 100 years provides a spectacular case of arrested intellectual development, and conceptual poverty. British historians have largely remained impervious to the solutions put forward by Marxism, psycho-analysis and classical sociology. Or else they have only glimpsed them through the blurred light of caricature and vulgarization. Thus the ingrained assumptions of British historical method have never been thoroughly shaken. The force of outside pressure has resulted in a few tactical concessions—the economic ‘factor’ has been conceded as important, real motives, it is admitted, are not always the same as those professed, and lately there have been hints of an arranged marriage between history and sociology. But the structure has remained intact. The result is as weird as if a Newtonian physicist were to come across Einstein, admit that relativity was probably a factor of some importance, and then attempt to carry on as before, under the impression that the occasional acknowledgement would absolve him from the necessity of further thought about it.

The peculiar myopia of English historians goes back at least to the 1860’s and 1870’s, when history was first established as a subject worthy of academic study in English universities. At this time the main defining characteristic of academic history was a devout liberalism buttressed by a positivist methodology. The task of the historian in Ranke’s much quoted dictum, was ‘simply to show how it really was’—in other words to ascertain the facts. Historical facts were analogous to the facts of natural science: discrete, atomic and supremely indifferent to the position of the observer. What the natural scientist could reveal by the use of test-tube, microscope and experimental method, the historian could uncover through the use of archaeology, philology and painstaking textual criticism. Historians of the generation of Acton, Stubbs, Maitland, Gardiner and Bury undertook prodigious feats of factual production in the happy belief that soon all ‘facts’ would be uncovered and universal history would be completed.

In the original positivist programme, the collection of facts was to be followed by the framing of general laws comparable to those of Newtonian physics or, more relevantly, Darwinian biology. But the pronouncements of Comte were not greeted with enthusiasm by English historians, and Comte’s main English disciple, Buckle, was execrated by Acton ‘for submitting men and human actions to the crucible of induction’. Since, within the positivist framework, philosophy (and in particular the philosophy of history) was assumed to have been overthrown by natural science, therefore even ‘Positivism’ itself, in as much as it was a philosophy, could also be safely disregarded by British historians.

In place of dangerously speculative and scientifically unfounded general laws, the British historians substituted magisterial moral judgments. History, Thomas Arnold had stated in 1841, was a moral lesson. Over 50 years later, it was still possible for Acton to assert confidently that ‘the inflexible integrity of the moral code is to me the secret of the authority, the dignity and the utility of history’. Yet in some unresolved way history was also a science. History was a science because it was composed of ‘facts’. ‘Facts’ were events, and events resulted from the action of individuals producing them through the framework of institutions. All these were verifiable empirical realities, and once they had been established and confirmed, it was the task and duty of the historian to judge them. At its most elevated level therefore, history could attain the status of a scientific sermon.

It was probably for this reason that so much history was focused upon the Constitution and upon ‘great men’. For non-sensible realities like class, mode of production or politically and culturally determined patterns of behaviour were not empirically verifiable. They could not simply be uncovered by the study of documents, and they did not afford the same straightforward criterion of moral pronouncement. Thus history was more conveniently interpreted as the interaction between great men and the institutions they created, modified or resisted. As Charles Kingsley succinctly put it in his inaugural lecture as professor of history at Cambridge in 1861: ‘the new science of little men can be no science at all; because the average man is not the normal man, and never yet has been; because the great man is rather the normal man, as approaching more nearly than his fellows to the true “norma” and standard of a complete human character . . . to turn to the mob for your theory of humanity is (I think) about as wise as to ignore the Apollo and the Theseus, and to determine the proportions of the human figure from a crowd of dwarfs and cripples’. As late as 1925, H. W. C. Davis, Regius professor at Oxford, attacked ‘those selfstyled social historians’ who ‘tell us that what we most need to know about any civilization in the past is what its poorer and more illiterate members thought and did . . . our common humanity is best studied in the most eminent examples that it has produced of every type of human excellence’.