Aquarter 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.footnote1 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.footnote2 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’.footnote3 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.

Jennifer Hart caused a stir in Past and Present in the 1960s with a vitriolic attack on what she called the Tory school of administrative history,footnote4 in which she included Oliver MacDonagh, Kitson Clark, W.L. Burn, David Roberts and others. She accused them—accurately—of belittling the role of men and ideas; of attributing change to the Christian conscience of public opinion in areas where it considered conditions intolerable, and of holding that change was not, on the whole, premeditated or planned but was the result of ‘the historical process’ or ‘blind forces’. In reality, Hart maintained, 19th-century administrative change had been in large measure the result of conscious planning by the Benthamites. Henry Parris strengthened her case by showing how Dicey had led historians astray with his claim that the Benthamites were champions of laissez-faire against government growth,footnote5 while S.E. Finer demonstrated the extraordinarily vigorous efforts of the Benthamites to spread their ideas in governing circles between 1820 and 1850 and their remarkable success in this enterprise.footnote6

What Jennifer Hart did not spell out—but what surely gave the debate its acrimonious tone—was the fact that she was speaking for an alternative political tradition, which might be called the Fabian school of administrative studies and historiography. The basic tenets of classical Fabianism are, of course, that the state can and should engage in positive social engineering and that this requires conscious planning on the part of an intellectual elite dedicated to the common good. Translated into historiography, these assumptions have produced a strong defence of the role of the Benthamites in 19th-century reform. There is, after all, a close family resemblance between Benthamism and Fabianism both in their substantive political theories and in their methods of work and the roles they sought to play. Beatrice Webb named Bentham ‘Sidney’s intellectual god-father’,footnote7 and Graham Wallas acknowledged his own enormous debt by employing an essentially Benthamite conception of rights and attempting to ground political theory on an adequate grasp of human nature and psychology.footnote8 The early Fabians’ enthusiasm for quantitative social science techniques serving a dynamic elite of professional administrators makes them direct descendants of the Social Science Association founded by, among others, Chadwick and Kay-Shuttleworth in the mid-1850s, after they had been driven out of government jobs to make room for the new breed of reformers.

The Fabian school has built its interpretation of 19th-century administrative history around Wallas’s distinction between the Negative and the Positive State. As he put it: ‘During the last hundred years, in all civilized communities of the world the functions of government have changed from being mainly negative into being mainly positive, that is to say, Governments have come to be engaged not merely in preventing wrong things from being done, but in bringing it about that right things shall be done.’footnote9 Wallas and later Fabians constantly repeated that this positive state required a government of experts—a carefully recruited, highly trained, elite corps of professional civil servants. Wallas himself even defined the ‘master-art of government’ to be the ‘use of intellectual initiative for the creation of such administrative machinery as shall produce in its turn further intellectual initiative’.footnote10 This standpoint has formed the basis for a large body of Fabian literature, providing the core normative ideas in H.R.G. Greaves’s important book, The Civil Service in the Changing State, in the Fabian tracts of 1946 and June 1964, in Thomas Balogh’s famous essay, ‘The Apotheosis of the Dilettante’, and indeed in the Fulton Report and in the Crowther-Hunt and Kelner critique of the civil service in 1977.footnote11

Thus, while the Tory historians generally deplore the ‘excessive’ growth of the the ‘collectivist state’ as a bureaucratic encroachment upon ‘liberty’, the Fabians applaud it. While the Tories dismiss the idea that changes in the 19th-century state could have been carefully planned, the Fabians insist that the Benthamites did indeed plan a good deal. While the Tories make the Christian conscience of ‘public opinion’ the source of reform, the Fabians identify a definite group of conscious, theoretically aware bourgeois reformers. These contrasts indicate, however, the degree to which both schools agree on a central significant trajectory, from the Negative, laissez-faire or individualist state, to the collectivist, bureaucratic Welfare state. They both also agree that crucial changes in the governmental–administrative system had to do not with social or class conflict but with the tackling of new circumstances or old problems, and that the whole process was part of a wider ‘modernization’, along with the rise of the middle classes, the growing complexity of society and state, the spread of democracy and technological transformations.

All these shared assumptions have produced a remarkable consensus over the Northcote–Trevelyan Report on the reorganization of the central institutions of government in the 1850s. The very article by MacDonagh that sparked the controversy with Jennifer Hart over the nature of the ‘19th-century revolution in Government’ had devoted as much space to Northcote–Trevelyan as to Benthamism. Yet Hart’s savage response passed over MacDonagh’s interpretation of Northcote–Trevelyan in silence—not surprisingly since her own views turned out to be almost textually identical. For MacDonagh the report was first of all aimed at ‘the further loosening of the aristocratic hold on government’ and at eradicating political corruption; Hart correspondingly stresses the aim, on Gladstone’s part, of a purer public ethic. For MacDonagh it was designed to cheapen and improve the efficiency of government; Hart correspondingly claims that Trevelyan’s chief concern was greater efficiency. MacDonagh adds a third point: that the report was ‘impregnated with the radical ethics of self-help and competition’ and that the reform betrayed ‘a total absence’ of either bureaucratic or collectivist intention. Hart does not bridle at this. She makes no attempt to assimilate Northcote–Trevelyan to her Benthamite Great Tradition, and treats the report very much in the Tory style as the product of individual personalities’ immediate concerns—a ‘blind’ step in the march towards the modern state.

This shared view merges with a wide consensus among administrative historians—from Kingsley and Cohen, through Balogh, Greaves and Finer, to Parris and Annan—that Northcote–Trevelyan was part of the general rise of the bourgeoisie’s influence on government, linked to the steady progress of democratization, the increasing complexity of administration, technological change and so forth.footnote12 The list of adjectives could be extended almost endlessly—‘democratic’, ‘middle-class’, ‘radical’, ‘against the ancien régime’, ‘technocratic’, ‘efficiency-oriented’, ‘anti-aristocratic’ and so on. True, some of these authors do show signs of uneasiness,footnote13 and Hughes, author of some of the most important detailed research on the work surrounding and leading up to the Report, eschews broad historical generalizations about its place and significance in 19th-century development.footnote14 Nevertheless, until Hans Mueller’s recent work to which we shall return, we would have to go back before the First World War to the conservative American administrative historian, Robert Moses, to find a radically different interpretation.footnote15