How can politics scholars best redress the emerging ideological orthodoxy among them? The Marquess of Halifax provides the answer: we need a new generation of “trimmers”.
Like our counterparts in North America, the great majority of British academics today are politically left-leaning, especially in the humanities and social sciences, including political studies. Exceptions can of course be found, but the data show that most of us are “progressive” rather than conservative, non-traditionalist, atheist or secularist, cosmopolitan rather than patriotic or nationalist, egalitarian, and very often anti-capitalist in some sense. Shared scorn for Donald Trump, the Tory party, and Brexit, can usually be assumed in settings within the academy—though not outside it. Among those whose political language is unaffected by the academic dialect, we would be surprised to find the grammar of what is sometimes labelled “cultural marxism”—the paradigmatic attribution of social and political problems to “structures” that “privilege power”. But we are not surprised to encounter those viewpoints among other academics.
The causes of this striking statistical consensus among people who seem to disagree so often are certain to be very complex, though the privileging of novelty in funding and publishing surely play a role. Examples of journal submissions finding light passage when they reinforce or flatter the orthodoxy, even if they are in fact hoaxes, are quite well known. But whatever its causes, orthodoxy undermines trust in our peer review process; it fuels anti-academic attitudes in political practice, and it is anyway inconsistent to champion diversity in everything except viewpoint.
As an historian of ideas, it strikes me that rebalancing the ideological monoculture of contemporary political studies might require revisiting the seventeenth century. (As so often.) In short, we need to hear more from those whose character answers to what George Savile, Marquess of Halifax (1633–1695), called a “Trimmer”.
“This innocent word Trimmer”, Halifax explains, “signifieth no more than this, that if men are together in a boat, and one part of the company would weigh it down on one side, another would make it lean as much to the contrary”. There are, he continues, “those, who conceive it would do as well, if the boat went even, without endangering the passengers”. The trimmer disposes his weight wherever it is needed to balance those who would “bungle”, “mangle”, or “disguise” the laws of their country, whatever their particular reasons for seeking to do so. He opposes those who have a “lust” for “suffering from a wrong point of honour”, and those who “raise angry apparitions to keep men from being reconciled”, and he will expose the view that the “opinion most in the right” is that “which produceth the greatest number of those who are willing to suffer for it”.
The trimmer’s own positions are therefore responses to dominant fashion. In Halifax’s time, this means that a trimmer will seek to neutralize the frenzied aggravations of doctrinaire royalists and parliamentarians; he will oppose intolerance towards Catholics, and any biased idolization or hatred of France. Thus, a trimmer is one that dwells “in the middle between the two extremes”. This is why, for Halifax, the English climate, English laws, the Church, and even God himself are also trimmers. “In such company”, he writes, “our Trimmer is not ashamed of his name”, and he “will not be bawled, threatened, laughed or drunk out of” his principles of moderation—even if he is attacked as a heretic for maintaining them.
In the 1950s, the philosopher Michael Oakeshott reformulated Halifax’s idea of the “trimmer” in line with his own exposition of what he called “the politics of faith and the politics of scepticism”. For Oakeshott, the “politics of faith” is today in the ascendancy: the activity of governing is widely assumed to serve the “perfection” of mankind. Under different circumstances, with scepticism in the ascendancy, trimmers would be needed to speak up for utopia and simple ideals. But in contemporary political studies, where Oakeshott’s diagnosis has become only truer, trimmers are needed for the opposite purpose.
The programme Oakeshott outlines for the trimmers of today has three points: “to restore the understanding of the complexity of modern politics”, to “renew the vitality of political scepticism”, and to work against the prevailing current in their political practice. There is scope for this third task, he says, “within every one of the political parties and alignments of modern European politics”. But it seems to me that the trimmers we need to hear more from in political studies will prioritize Oakeshott’s first two points. The exact nature of their contributions to debates is of course impossible to prescribe. But in general, they will target in all their academic activity the prevailing viewpoints in scholarship, and single-out the dominant terms and paradigms of academic discussion. They will then declare themselves “sceptical”, and point out in their own ways that, in the realities of modern politics, “it is more complicated than that”.
Christopher Fear is a Lecturer in Politics at the University of Hull. He is the Treasurer of the PSA Conservatism Studies Specialist Group, and a member of the Specialist Group for British Idealism and the New Liberalism. His article, “The ‘Dialectical’ Theory of Conservatism”, is forthcoming in the Journal of Political Ideologies.
This article first appeared here, on the PSA blog.