The art of the possible

Politics and governance in modern British history, 1885–1997: essays in memory of Duncan Tanner

‘Die Politik’, Bismarck is reputed to have said, ‘ist die Lehre von Möglichen’. Translated as ‘politics is the art of the possible’, this phrase captures neatly the pragmatism that has been at the heart of modern British approaches to the art of government. It is not as though ideology has not, occasionally, loomed large in political debate. Conviction certainly has a respectable pedigree in explaining the attachments, destinies and ultimate fate of some politicians. But success in British politics has come most readily to those who have been flexible, responsive to the shifting mood of the electorate of the day, able to anticipate how social and economic changes may reconstitute the terms of debate, and how through their own words and writings they themselves may help to constitute political meaning.

This volume explores some of the major transitions, opportunities and false dawns of modern British political history. Chronologically its span runs from the first general election to be conducted under the terms of the Third Reform Act, with an extensive (if still incomplete) adult male electorate, through to the 1997 referenda in favour of devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. This was the period in which British politicians most obviously addressed a mass, British-wide electorate, seeking national approval for policies and programmes to be enacted on a UK-wide basis.

In covering this period and this theme the volume as a whole engages with the scholarly legacy of Duncan Tanner.

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‘As is to be expected of a volume based on a conference which took place in 2012, aspects of the contributions collected in this volume will be familiar from other articles or books produced by the authors. Nonetheless, as the preceding survey indicates, this is a rich and varied volume, which indicates the continued health of twentieth-century political history in Britain and offers a fitting reflection of the influence of Duncan Tanner on its writing.'
David Thackeray, University of Exeter
The Journal of the Historical Association

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