Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 June 2021
Among the various developments in the study of political and constitutional history in twentieth-century Britain, perhaps the most important has been the adoption of a social approach, a way of thinking about power and political negotiation that acknowledges the implication of these things in social structure and practice. Already perceptible in the work of the great nineteenth-century constitutional historians, and taken onward by the most perceptive of their successors in the early twentieth century (notably Maitland), the notion that politics, together with government and other institutions of power, must be understood as expressions of society gained ground from the 1920s and 1930s, becoming the natural basis for understanding the political element in most periods of British history. To be sure, this partly Marxian approach was challenged in some quarters, and was practised with varying degrees of refinement and emphasis, but its adoption may well explain the long survival of political history as a subject of importance in British universities. Where the French abandoned the history of politics for more than a generation, and the Americans allowed an unreformed whiggish narrative to wither away to nothing, the study of British politics and state-formation has remained lively across all periods and continues to attract historians of ability even in the new millennium.
For scholars of later medieval England (or Scotland, or Wales), the leading author of this development was, of course, K. B. McFarlane: his aim to understand the history of ‘the English state’ via ‘a study of the evolution of its governing class’, as he put it in 1940, was developed in his lectures and carried forward in the work of his students, and then their students, in the 1970s and 1980s and beyond. In the mid-1990s, Richard Britnell and Tony Pollard could still say that ‘the current state of the art in the history of late medieval English politics is … McFarlane's legacy’, and anyone attempting a survey of today’s writing on the subject would be likely to take a similar view. But if the major breakthrough in the study of our subject was made in the 1940s and 1950s, that is not to say that nothing has happened since.