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How stable is Britain?

Professor Linda Colley will present this year’s Fitzwilliam College Foundation Lecture, on The Drawbacks of Stability: The British Case.

The recent assassination of Sir David Amess, the second such killing in less than ten years, underscores the increasing instability of the British body politic, with threats ranging from political violence and terrorism to heightened post-Brexit uncertainties over the membership of the Union.

In this Foundation Lecture, Linda Colley uses as an entry point to these and other political questions a famous historical work by J.H. Plumb, onetime Professor of Modern History at Cambridge.

His 1967 book, The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675–1725, was an attempt to explain why the civil warfare, regicide and revolution of the 17th century gave way to a more stable period after the so-called Glorious Revolution of 1688.

As Professor Colley says: “There was no further revolution in the island of Great Britain after 1688” - nor another successful foreign military and naval invasion. And while civil warfare continued to disrupt Scotland until 1746 and Ireland for much longer, there have been as yet no further outbreaks of ‘British-wide’ Civil War since the 1640s and ‘50s.

Complacent

Instead, as Professor Colley explains, Great Britain became for a very long while a more prosperous, stable and often - among some - a deeply complacent place. Plumb (who was Colley’s thesis supervisor) wanted to account for these major shifts; and while she agrees that some of his analysis may be questioned, it can still help us to probe and understand today’s difficulties.

“Plumb’s work looks at what political stability is, and identifies some of its foundations,” Professor Colley remarks. “Re-reading and reconsidering his arguments is especially suggestive now, given that the confidence and optimism that inform his book are plainly eroding at multiple levels.”

The UK itself, she says, is characterized by sharper and more doctrinaire partisan divisions, and the polity as a whole is arguably at greater risk of fragmentation. More broadly, there are acute challenges posed by climate and ecological changes, plagues, ever rising levels of long-distance migration, and deeper inequalities.

“We live in far more troubled times,” Professor Colley adds. “You can see this in the United States too and in continental Europe, as well as in other regions of the world. I obviously can’t set out the guaranteed solutions in this Foundation Lecture (would that I could). But in the last third of it, I do want to talk about how we might approach these and other issues within the UK and elsewhere in a more constructive, historically-informed and pluralistic fashion.”

The Foundation Lecture takes place on Thursday 11 November at 6pm.

Professor Colley is the Shelby M.C. Davis 1958 Professor of History at Princeton University, and an expert on British, imperial and global history. Her most recent book, The Gun, the Ship & the Pen (2021) was described by The Times as 'rich, enjoyable, enlightening and imaginative. Colley takes you on intellectual journeys you wouldn’t think to take on your own, and when you arrive you wonder that you never did it before’.

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