Cawood on Keble III

The final part of Ian Cawood’s report on life on sabbatical at Keble College, Oxford.

In Hilary Term 2017 I was fortunate enough to enjoy a Visiting Research Associateship at the Centre for Victorian Political Culture, based at Keble College, Oxford. Coming from Newman University in Birmingham, one of the newest and smallest universities in the UK (having achieved full university status in 2013) to the oldest university in the English speaking world, it was comforting to walk through Newman quad at Keble and to find busts and portraits of John Henry watching over me. Thanks to the sponsorship of Professor Angus Hawkins and the support of Dr Ian Archer and Dr Alisdair Rogers, I was able to enjoy the facilities of the Senior Common Room, which nourished me on the cold January and February days and where I was able to consider whether or not Nikolas Pevsner was right to call the wallpaper ‘a decidedly ladies’ paper’. I also spent much time in Butterfield’s library, opened by William Gladstone in April 1878, exploring the political, cultural and social history collection, before venturing out to the less inviting setting of the Gladstone Link beneath the Radcliffe Camera.

 Writing of Gladstone leads me onto the work I have been pursuing this Term. Gladstone famously pronounced himself an enemy of privilege and in favour of greater equality of opportunity. In his recent magisterial volume on Victorian Political Culture Angus Hawkins notes that the traditional view of a ‘liberal advance’ in mid- nineteenth century Britain includes ‘the replacement of patronage by a more meritocratic public ethos’, such as Gladstone espoused, in the administrative bodies of Victorian Britain. Recently, much work has been done on the growth of ethical values and professional self-denial in the higher civil service, particularly by Rodney Lowe and Barry O’Toole, but much of the process whereby this ethos became embedded throughout the civic realm remains largely uninvestigated. 

My research project looks more specifically at the ways in which a culture of patronage, ‘jobbery’, peculation and the misuse of public office was replaced by what Frank Carr terms ‘an intangible set of values’ and John Girling calls ‘the pursuit of virtue’; a collective, institutional sense of altruism and personal self-denial that has proved remarkably tenacious in the character of British civic culture, at least until the 1980s. This was already well established in 19th century Prussia, where the bureaucracy had developed a reputation for honest, efficient government, before it became somewhat distorted by the ambitious national and personal ambitions of Bismarck. The adoption of the ‘public service ethos’ sought to expunge the plague of corruption. In British public discourse, the word corruption originally had a religious significance, referring to the effects of sin upon the body, but increasingly in post- Enlightenment Europe it came to mean misuse of the political system or of individuals within it, arising from moral failure.

For the rest of Ian Cawood’s post, visit the pages of Keble’s Research Centre in Victorian Political Culture.


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