Peterhouse school of history

The Peterhouse School of History was named after the Cambridge college of the same name where the history taught concentrated on 'high politics'. That is, the study of 'fifty or sixty politicians in conscious tension with one another', in the words of the late Maurice Cowling, the most prominent member of the Peterhouse school.

Historians generally considered to be part of the Peterhouse school have been Michael Bentley, Alistair B. Cooke, Maurice Cowling, John Adamson, Edward Norman and John Vincent. Although some are no longer at Peterhouse and Cowling himself was not comfortable with the label (preferring "Peterhouse Right") these historians, Cowling stated, also:

...share common prejudices - against the higher liberalism and all sorts of liberal rhetoric...and in favour of irony, geniality and malice as solvents of enthusiasm, virtue and political elevation.

— Maurice Cowling, Mill and Liberalism: Second Edition (CUP, 1990), p. xxx

The Peterhouse school see politicians making policy decisions with self-interest their primary goal and ideological principles acting as a kind of smoke screen to cover their true intentions or held because they are politically convenient at the time. Peterhouse historians reject biography as, Cowling argues, it "abstracts a man whose public action should not be abstracted" because politicians' actions cannot be properly understood in isolation but only by their interaction with fellow politicians. Cowling also claimed that the Peterhouse school treated Parliament as an instrument of class warfare and that it borrowed from The Spectator's political columnist Henry Fairlie and Robert Blake's central chapters of his The Unknown Prime Minister the realisation of parliamentary politics as "a spectacle of ambition and manoeuvre".[1]

Maurice Cowling believed that the term had been coined by Joseph Lee, a professor at University College Cork but previously a Fellow of Peterhouse.[2] In Cowling's own words:

What Professor Lee meant, however, was not a philosophical position but what he called, with a historian's rancour, the "high-political" works which had been written about the history of nineteenth- and twentieth-century English politics by Professor J.R. Vincent, Dr. A.B. Cooke, Dr. Andrew Jones, and myself in the years between 1965 and 1976.

— New York Review of Books, March 13, 1986


  1. ^ Cowling, p. xvi.
  2. ^ "'The Peterhouse School' by Maurice Cowling | The New York Review of Books". The New York Review of Books. 1986-04-10. Retrieved 2016-08-20.

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