Not street protests, but quiet lobbying by important people brings change. Or so we are told

The Tory interpretation

Mike Macnair argues that there is an institutional bias in the teaching of history. It is a bias that suits the agenda of those who believe in inequality, the natural order and firm government

I begin1 with the 1933 case Bonar Law Memorial Trust v Commissioners of the Inland Revenue.2 The issue in this case was whether a trust to educate activists and organisers in Conservative Party principles by holding education sessions at a country house which was part of the Trust property was charitable. The ruling was that it was not, for the reason that political objects cannot be charitable.

However, despite this ruling, the Conservative Party found a way to make the teaching of Conservative Party principles compulsory in schools and universities, whether charitable or state-funded. The means by which they did so was through history methodology courses, taught to undergraduate historians - which then, of course, fed through to the choices made by history teachers in schools. The underlying basis of it is that it has become compulsory to denounce the ‘trap’ of Whig history.

The late Christopher Hill said towards the end of his career that he was not sure that you could do any sort of history without Whig history. I am not that sure that line of argument it is quite right. But it is, I think, worth considering how the mechanism works: how denouncing ‘Whig history’ makes compulsory ‘Tory history’.

Notoriously, one interpretation of Marxism is that it is ‘historical materialism’ or ‘dialectical and historical materialism’ - whatever these things mean. Either way, however, Marxism has a substantial part which is about history. This means that we cannot treat the fight about historical method between so-called ‘Whig’ historians and self-styled ‘anti-Whigs’ as not our business. Questions of historical method matter to us as Marxists.

The starting point of the condemnation of ‘Whig history’ is Herbert Butterfield’s 1931 book The Whig interpretation of history.3 Despite the title, which has stuck, this was actually in substance not a denunciation of Whig historians writing in the late 17th and 18th centuries - like revolutionist James Tyrrell (1642-1718), Williamite bishop Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), or ‘republican virago’ Catharine Macaulay (1731-91). Rather, it criticises 19th and early 20th century Liberal historians. Particularly Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-59), John Dalberg-Acton, Lord Acton (1834-1902) and George Macaulay Trevelyan (1876-1962), and various other people who wrote in that frame of mind. The idea was that the ‘Whig historians’ had an image of history as something which inexorably and inevitably led to the present - or more precisely, inexorably and inevitably led to modern liberal England.

Butterfield in The Whig interpretation of history was concerned to argue that history did not inevitably lead to liberalism, or to 19h century England, or to modernity or any of these things. He wrote this book as a young man and it was one of those iconoclastic texts read by everybody. But it was not immediately picked up as a foundational text for history methodology. Ten years after writing it, Butterfield himself abandoned in substance the whole argument in The Whig interpretation of history.4 But it became a big-deal text that was taught to undergraduate historians. It was one of the things you had to read. And from the 1960s on, it began to be the case that you had to hat-tip to it, whether you had read it or not.

In the 1960s, ‘anti-Whig’ arguments were further developed by GR Elton, the famous conservative historian, whose historical narrative was one of the growth, not of liberty, but of state power. G Kitson Clark in his 1967 The critical historian extends Butterfield’s arguments on methodology (incidentally drawing on the modern Jacobite historian, JG Muddiman, for critique of sources relied on by the ‘Whig’ historians). I do not know whether history departments still make undergraduates read The Whig interpretation of history, but there were generations of undergraduates who had to. Elton, interestingly, commented in 1984 that “The Whig interpretation proves on rereading to be really perilously thin - truly an essay lacking in substance, and in particular lacking in history.”5

It has now become the case that you just have to do a hat-tip to rejection of ‘Whig history’. Many, manyhistorians - especially younger ones recently out of research training - do indeed give that mandatory hat-tip. Googling the phrase produces around 71,700 hits, many of them ‘hat-tips’ of this sort. More senior historians may have a little more liberty on this front.


If there was a Whig, or indeed a Liberal, interpretation of history, it should follow that there is also a Tory interpretation. If we went back to the time of real Whigs, as opposed to 19th century Liberals, we would, indeed, find such explicit texts - for example, Roger North’s 1740 Examen. There have been people who have written about the Tory interpretation of history. But, in modern times, ‘Tory interpretation of history’ gets only around 4,240 hits on Google. It is as if the partisan quality of Tory historians has been made invisible.

From these, the nearest to what I am talking about, I think, is Jennifer Hart, writing back in 1965 against Kitson Clark in her article, ‘Nineteenth century social reform: a Tory interpretation of history’.6 Kitson Clark and other Tories essentially argued that the social reforms of the 19th century - slum clearance, the introduction of urban water supplies and so on - were all basically introduced by Tory governments under the influence of the Church of England and that activist campaigning for social reforms (or indeed for the vote) if anything slowed up the progress of social reform. Hart argues resoundingly, just on the basis of technical 19th century legal and political sources, that this was not true.

Richard Evans’ 2011 article, ‘The wonderfulness of us (the Tory interpretation of history)’, in spite of its title is in fact a Butterfieldian critique of Whig history. But it calls Whig history ‘Tory history’. The reason for doing so is that some people, writing about the run-up to the anniversary of Magna Carta, had started redeploying the Whig interpretation of history in favour of a certain sort of Toryism.7

Michael D Gordin’s ‘A Tory interpretation of history’ is a review of a 2012 book by Hasok Chang: Is water H2O? Chang argues that we should not be teleological about the history of science, that we should take the old theory of phlogiston (discarded in the early 19th century) more seriously. He said we should not have the teleological view that, because something is current chemistry, the older, rejected chemistry must have been wholly wrong. This is, in a sense, a rejection of what would commonly be called Whig history. But Gordin argues that Chang is himself Whiggish, because he is looking for features of phlogiston which are helpful to today’s scientist. Gordin argues on this basis for what he calls a Tory interpretation of history: one which absolutely refuses judgments on the past, whether moral or scientific or about what has led to the present.8


None of these are quite what I am talking about in relation to the Tory interpretation of history. And my starting point is something which is about modern history, including Marx. Modern history is based on evidence: it is not simply a narrative spun out of thin air. There is a famous 1979 book by TP Wiseman called Clio’s cosmetics. Clio is the muse of history and Clio’s cosmetics are the rhetorical devices and fictions which ancient historians used to make their writing agreeable and plausible. Clio’s cosmetics is about the way in which ancient historians transmitted stories from one historian to another as a form of decoration, and invented speeches which they never heard, and cast them in terms which fit with the language of their own time.

The same happened in pre-modern English historical writing. Just for a single example, quite a lot of people have tended to use Shakespeare’s history plays as a source for popular history. In reality, Shakespeare’s history plays are literary transmissions from prior chronicle sources, which address late 16th and early 17th century concerns.

We shifted away from that very literary form of history writing into more modern historical techniques between the 17th and 19th centuries. And the way in which we made that transit is through historians beginning to adopt legal tests for the assessment of evidence. These tests are of Roman origin. Roman legal sources contain random bits of advice about how to assess evidence. These are mainly from the jurist Callistratus’s book on criminal prosecutions, written around 200 CE, quoting extracts from ‘rescripts’ - which are letters of advice to junior judges from the emperor Hadrian (117-38 CE).

Hadrian seems to have given a good deal of advice to junior magistrates on how to assess evidence and the weight of evidence. Callistratus then quoted it in his book. The emperor Justinian in the late 520s-530s got a commission of academics and practising lawyers to make extracts from all the law textbooks and treatises then in existence, which is called the Digest. The original books were then suppressed; but the Digest survived, and medieval lawyers developed their ideas on the basis of this, and other elements of Justinian’s project - the Code of imperial decisions, the Institutes or first-year introductory text, the Novels (Justinian’s legislation between 535 and 565).

And so we have the following fragments of advice to Roman magistrates - to summarise:

These very disorganised fragments in the Roman texts were then systematised by medieval legal writers.10 The systematised version of the medieval legal writers then became, in the 17th century in particular, popularly adopted by people in the physical sciences. The Royal Society and similar societies elsewhere are big on adopting the legal tests for evidence in relation to judging the stories of witnesses. Theologians, writing about stories of miracles, came in the end to the conclusion that, while there were miracles in the time of the Bible, there were no miracles in modern times. They started with the proposition that things which are consistent with the ordinary course of nature, such as water running downhill, do not need many witnesses to support it. But if you want to show that water may flow uphill a lot of witnesses are required. Similarly, if a man was raised from the dead, to show that he was actually dead you are going to need a lot of evidence.11

Historians also started to use these tests - and continue to do so. For example, we think that an eyewitness to an event is prima facie more reliable than someone who tells us about it some time later. This is just from Hadrian. But then again there may be considerations of bias involved. And so on.

Just to give an example: the Roman ‘Twelve Tables’ from 450 BC say that someone who qui malum carmen incantasset (literally, ‘sings a bad song’) is liable to the death penalty. Cicero, a republican politician and civil and criminal trial advocate, writing in the 40s BCE, says that this was a prohibition against defamatory songs and satires. ‘And quite right too,’ he says, ‘because our reputation should be subject to the courts and not to the poets and dramatists.’

Pliny, author of the book Natural history about a hundred years later, says that it was a prohibition against witchcraft. Now Cicero is 400 years after the event and Pliny 500 years, so prima facie Cicero is closer to the event. On the other hand, if we look at Cicero’s biases, which is another aspect of Hadrian on witnesses, Cicero was heavily targeted by satirists and he was a conservative type who wanted to introduce censorship for reasons other than suppressing defamatory poems and songs.

So Cicero’s biases lead us to prefer Pliny’s point of view despite the fact that it is further from the event. Moreover, looking at analogies, most pre-modern legal orders recognise witchcraft as a crime, and it usually attracts the death penalty. So we are balancing the fact that Cicero is closer to the event - that is in his favour - against his biases - that is against him. Pliny is further from the event - that is against him. But what he has to say is more consistent with the ordinary course of events - that is in his favour.

What has been done is to borrow tests for evidence from law. The reason for doing it is that a historian, like a lawyer in court, is interested in working out what happened. Did the defendant stab and kill the victim or did somebody else do it? If the defendant did stab the victim, was it intentional, was it accidental or was it in self-defence? We want to find out what happened. That is the same sort of exercise that a historian undertakes, except historians are usually doing it at greater distance in time. In the 2000 case of Irving v Penguin books and Lipstadt they were arguing about the truth of the holocaust in court: history becomes a legal issue; but in fact an ordinary trial about a murder or a road accident is investigating (recent) history.


However, the legal tests depend on the burden of proof and presumptions. We start, as I summarised above, with the proposition that the person who asserts the positive has the burden of proof. Mere denial does not. In criminal cases, the prosecutor has the burden of proof, not the defendant. We choose that for a moral and political reason about the state.

But equally, as I said in relation to Cicero and Pliny, it is easier to believe Pliny when he tells a story which is consistent with the ordinary course of events than somebody who tells a story which is inconsistent with it. For people who want to say that a miracle happened we demand more evidence than for those who say it did not.

We can extend it further. In Byrne v Boadle in 1863, a man is walking down the street and a barrel falls out of an upstairs window on his head and he sues the owner of the property for negligence. The defendant’s counsel says: ‘But you haven’t proved that anybody was careless.’ The judges say, ‘Barrels don’t usually fall out of upstairs windows without somebody being careless.’ It is a presumption. There is a Latin tag which is commonly applied to this sort of case: res ipsa loquitur - ‘the thing itself speaks’.12

So the ordinary course of events is foundational to our ability to allocate the burden of proof and also to assess the standard of proof. And it is the ordinary course of events which founds these presumptions. There is a standard argument used by early modern English legal authors: a man is seen coming out of a house with a bloody sword in his hand and immediately afterwards a person is found in the house, stabbed to death. This is a ‘violent presumption’ of guilt. The accused now has to offer some explanation as to how it came to be the case that he did that.13

Herbert Butterfield’s objection to Whig historians was that they presumed there was progress in history. And that because they presumed there was progress in history they failed to recognise that the more probable outcome was actually that such progress would not happen and that the progress that actually happened was an unlikely outcome. Equally Kitson Clark argued in the 19th century that Liberal and left historians failed to recognise that protest movements rarely achieved their aims. That social change is usually achieved by quiet lobbying by important people and not by street protest movements. It is a claim about what usually happens.

The Whig historians were presuming that there is progress in history, and moreover - and I think this is right - that resistance, street activism, revolts, demonstrations, strikes and so on could lead to progress.

So what are the Tory historians presuming? You cannot do without presumptions altogether. It is inevitably the case that you make assumptions about what the ordinary course of events is. There are bases for those assumptions, but they are not necessarily going to be straightforwardly ‘accumulation of instances’ bases.

What are the Tory presumptions? I will list them, very roughly as I understand them from reading Tory historians (which means most anti-Whig historians) in the light of the ‘normal politics’ of the Tory Party, from its foundations in the 1670s-80s down to Brexiteering.

1. ‘The rape of the lock’, or the underlying triviality of historical causation: ‘The rape of the lock’ is a poem written by Tory poet Alexander Pope in the reign of Queen Anne (1712) and is a satire on politics being about totally trivial, backstairs gossip. Women gossiping among themselves - this is Queen Anne and Sarah Duchess of Marlborough, as per the film The favourite, and other such stuff. The basic idea of the Tory historians is that there is not progress. Rather humans just go on much the same way. Historical causes are usually and mostly accidents. Most historical events are accidents. Most historical events arise from relatively trivial phenomena.

2. Leviathan (Thomas Hobbes), the theology of the fall and the centrality of government: Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden and god told them not to eat the apple from the tree of knowledge. A serpent tempted Eve, who went on to tempt Adam. They ate the fruit of the tree of knowledge and god evicted them from the garden. This was the original sin, according to Christianity. To be very precise, according to orthodox Catholic Trinitarian Christianity, this was original sin from which god’s son, Jesus, redeemed us all by dying on the cross.

The conclusion from this is that, because we are fallen beings, we are fundamentally immoral. We inherit from Adam and Eve this propensity to sin and crime, which comes across in the state of nature that would, in Hobbes’ terms, be a war of all against all, and “the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. And, we escape from that by handing over all authority to the absolute monarch, the state, Leviathan: in modern terms to the government, which is why Tory leaders denounce any attempt to reduce government control of the Brexit process. There is no right to resist, as the right to resist would take us back into the state of nature. This ‘fall theology’, the sinful quality of humanity, and hence the necessity of the ‘smack of firm government’, is again presumed by Tory historians.

3. A government of men and not of laws: the Whigs certainly talked about the idea of the government of laws and not of men; or - the more modern expression for it - the ‘rule of law’. Tory history asserts that all government is the rule of some humans over other humans. Moreover, part of being fallen is natural inequality and natural ambition.

The ideas of natural inequality go all the way back to the pupils of the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle. They argued that slavery was due to the fact that, for example, north Europeans did not get enough sunlight and as a consequence their brain did not develop properly. So they needed somebody from southern Europe, who did have enough sunlight for their brain to develop, to tell them what to do.14

The underlying idea that hierarchy in society is the product of natural inequality is one which also implies natural ambition. People push and shove. People are ‘aspirational’. The result is that people are sorted into their natural hierarchies. There are the menu peuple: the led people. (I am sorry to say, some on the left are reinventing this idea when they talk about ‘the sheeple’). Then we have ‘knavery’: people who ought to be subordinate, but try to persuade the menu peuple that they ought to be able to lead themselves and not be subject to their natural superiors. ‘Knavery’ means Whigs and in modern times, liberals, socialists and communists.

4. Patriarcha (Robert Filmer): Filmer wrote Patriarcha in the 1630s in favour of absolute monarchy; it was published in 1680 as part of the polemic against the early Whigs and of the early development of Toryism. In it the family is the natural order of society, and in the family the natural order of things is that the father is in charge. The father being in charge is reflected in the king being in charge. And, going along with this, the only genuine solidarity is that of family. We see continuing Filmerism reflected in Maggie Thatcher’s ‘no such thing as society’.

5. In this context there is also a lot of talk amongst historians of the natural conservative majority; and, in tension with this, JCD Clark’s argument that a section of the upper classes engaged in a class betrayal in 1828-32, which had disastrous consequences. The unwashed masses were let into politics and ‘proper Tories’ have never been able to successfully push them out again.15 There is a little inconsistency here, because if there really was a natural conservative majority, letting the unwashed masses in should not have such disastrous results. The point is that apparent majorities for Whiggism, Liberalism, and so on, are never real majorities, but merely instances of ‘knavery’.

6. Finally, divisos ab orbe Britannos. This is a quote from the Roman author, Virgil, writing in the 20s BCE: “The Britons utterly separated from the whole world.” Virgil says that “even the Britons utterly separated from the whole world acknowledge the authority of Augustus”. The ex-chief justice, Sir Edward Coke, in 1628 quoted it in parliament.16 The idea is that the Channel is a fundamental divide between the Anglo-Saxon culture, ‘Anglo-Saxon liberty’ and what in the 18th century they called ‘popery and wooden shoes’. So, nationalism.

In the early 1700s we get the Tory Party running a campaign for what they called ‘blue water strategy’. This meant that the British should not be sending armies to the Netherlands to defend them against French invasion. Instead they should be using the occasion of the French invasion to go and seize French and Dutch colonies overseas. The ‘blue water strategy’ remained a common theme of the Tory Party through the 1750s, the 1780s and into the Napoleonic wars. It then moved into talk of the common history of the English-speaking peoples: notably Winston Churchill and in modern times talk of the ‘Anglosphere’, Euroscepticism and Liam Fox’s briefing Empire 2.0 - the name he gave the alternative, non-EU trade strategy (it has not gone over terribly well with people in the former British empire).

A related but separate branch of this: the Tories ran campaigns against Huguenot refugees, French Protestant refugees in the 1680s, as economic migrants. This is right at the foundation of the Tory Party. It resurfaced in a very successful campaign they ran against the naturalisation of Jews in 1753-54. Then another campaign against French refugees as economic migrants with the 1793 Aliens Act. Against Irish ‘hooliganism’ in the 19th century, but particularly in the 1890s. And, then again, against Jews as economic migrants taking our jobs in the 1905 Aliens Act. And, of course, the rest of the history of Tory anti-immigration will be familiar to everyone.

The form which divisos ab orbe Britannos takes among the historians is methodological nationalism - the idea that a heavy burden of proof rests on anyone who wants to demonstrate the influence of French, Dutch or whatever ideas and politics in England - autonomous national development, in contrast, needs little evidence.

So these are presumptions. We never get any significant amount of evidence offered - in support of the idea of either the underlying triviality of historical causation or the fallen nature of man - it is just taken for granted that humans are naturally evil. Nor is it offered in support of natural inequality. Nor in support of the idea that the only real solidarities are those of family against everybody else (aspirational people). Nor in support of divisos ab orbe Britannos. It is all assumed, and in consequence rather slight evidence can be used to support it.

A single example on the other side. In my own work I argue quite a lot that the law of proof and evidence from the medieval lawyers working with Roman sources was borrowed into English evidence law in the 17th century. But I have been asked, is there a smoking gun (a bloody sword, in Coke’s terms)? It is not enough that people use the same Latin tags as their continental counterparts. Can you show that when they use the Latin tags they were aware that this was the civil law? Could they just have been inventing by themselves the same Latin that was used by continentals?

The same is true, particularly around Brexiteering. The argument is that you have to prove the deleterious consequences which are going to follow from Brexit. It is not enough to say that there probably will be - you need a smoking gun in support of that. Moreover, the fact that no serious adverse consequences followed from just having the vote (with no legal consequences) is offered by Tories as evidence that there will be no serious adverse consequences from actual Brexit.

My point is, then, that my six listed presumptions are presumptions of Conservative Party principles. They are the root ideas since its 1680s origins. These are fundamental political ideas of the Tory Party. By rejecting the presumptions of the ‘Whig interpretation’, we commit to teaching the Tory interpretation in universities and schools.

Nobody learns in history methodology class that you have to avoid Tory interpretations of history. They learn that you have to avoid Whig interpretations of history. In this way the Tory Party succeeded in circumventing the ruling in Bonar Law Memorial Trust v Commissioners of the Inland Revenue.

By critiquing the Tory interpretation of history, we can begin to think outside the framework of assuming natural inequality, historical triviality, methodological nationalism and methodological patriarchalism. If we think outside of the framework of the assumptions of the methodological requirements of Tory history, which are expressed as rejection of ‘Whig history’, it will probably actually help us better to understand how to do modern-day politics, not just how to do history.



1. Mike Macnair spoke at Communist University 2018 on ‘The Tory interpretation of history’. This is an updated version of his talk

2. (1933) 49 Times Law Reports 220.

3. I have used the 1965 New York edition.

4. This point was originally made by EH Carr in 1961 in What is history? Butterfield’s response was that he had shifted before 1944, when The Englishman and his history was pretty ‘Whiggish’: N Jardine, ‘Whigs and stories: Herbert Butterfield and the historiography of science’ History of Science Vol 41 (2003), pp125-40.

5. ‘Herbert Butterfield and the study of history’ Historical Journal Vol 27 (1984), pp729-43.

6. Past and Present Vol 31 (1965), pp39-61.

7. London Review of Books March 17 2011.

8. Historical studies in the natural sciences Vol 44, pp413-23.

9. Digest 22.5 On witnesses 3. Callistratus, Criminal Prosecutions, book 4; Digest, 22.3 Proof and presumptions 2. Paul, Edict, book 69. Paraphrased from A Watson (ed) The digest of Justinian Philadelphia Philadelphia1985, Vol 1.

10. Starting with the ‘canon law’ (church court) procedural writers; a selection of early canon law procedural texts has recently been translated by B Brasington Order in court Leiden 2016; much more remains in Latin.

11. Particularly useful are Barbara J Shapiro Probability and certainty in seventeenth century England Princeton 1983; and A culture of fact: England 1550-1720 Ithaca 2000.

12. 2 H & C 722, 159 ER 299.

13. Coke upon Littleton (1627) fo. 6b.

14. B Isaac The invention of racism in classical antiquity Princeton 2004, pp70-71 (and following).

15. English Society 1688-1832 Cambridge 1985.

16. Virgil, Eclogues Bk 1, 1, l. 66. “et penitus toto divisos orbe Britannos”. Quoted by Coke: cited in AM Patterson Pastoral and ideology: Virgil to Valéry Berkeley1987, p149.