J.G.A. Pocock and the Politics of British History
In a series of essays published between 1974 and 2005, J. G. A. Pocock protested against the conventional anglocentric arrangement of British history, in which Scotland, Ireland and Wales had been largely ignored. His plea for a new British history has been the most influential framework for writing a pluralist, multi-cultural history of these islands. It is well known that Pocock’s original manifesto was prompted by the UK’s entry into the European Economic Community in January 1973. But this chapter will provide a richer account of the intellectual context in which Pocock’s ideas developed, paying particular attention to his native New Zealand in the post-war period. The underlying theme is the role of biography in shaping the decisions about the spatial frame we adopt when we write history.
The chapter goes on to examine the reasons for the sudden but short-lived popularity of the new British history during the 1990s. Although Pocock’s insights have transformed the political and constitutional history of England, Scotland, Ireland and the American colonies, his campaign against anglocentricity has now been overtaken by varieties of imperial, post-colonial and settler-colonial history, not least in New Zealand itself. Since the 1990s, the history of the UK has been globalized, which often means that the British past has been increasingly Americanized in terms of its central problems and priorities. The demise of imperial preference in 1973 inevitably seems a minor episode in the longer-term adjustments between the great European powers and the rest of the world.