Duncan Tanner and the art of the possible: understanding politics and governance in modern British history
Duncan Tanner’s work was overwhelmingly focused on the political process and on politics in government. He reached back into the late Victorian era, and forward to the very recent past. He was interested in organisations, parties and systems, but also in the people who worked in organisations and parties, and who were affected by (especially electoral) systems. He was a truly British historian, in that he engaged not only with politics at the highest (Westminster and Whitehall) levels, but also with operations on the ground in constituencies across the breadth of mainland Britain. He wanted to find out about MPs, agents, party loyalists, and also about voters in general. And in his approach to the politics of the past Duncan was, essentially, a pragmatist. Rather than condemn historical figures for failing to match up to an often ahistorical standard of ideological purity, he preferred to comprehend the varied pressures under which they operated, and how the decisions they made usually represented a rational (if not always correct) response to the need to reconcile policy ambitions and political realities. This chapter introduces Duncan Tanner’s approach to the politics and governance of modern Britain.
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