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Anthony King (1934-2017)
With the death of Anthony King – Tony King to those that knew him – British Political Science has lost one of its foremost analysts of government and politics, as well as the most familiar face of the discipline to the general public.
Born in Toronto in 1934, Tony was brought up in an archetypically progressive household. His father was an art teacher and an artist, his mother a librarian. They counted C. B. Macpherson as a regular visitor to their home. After gaining a BA in History and Economics at Queen’s University Ontario, Tony moved to Oxford in the mid-1950s as a Rhodes Scholar, reading PPE in the same year as Brian Barry. He went on to complete a DPhil on the Liberal Party in the early twentieth century. He then taught at Magdalen College Oxford before he was recruited to Essex in 1966 by Jean Blondel, the founding Professor of the Department of Government. He remained at Essex for the rest of his career, continuing to teach students into his eighties.
Tony was a brilliant writer and speaker as well as a highly innovative political scientist. Although he started his research writing the 1964 and 1966 election studies with David Butler, and was best known for his appearances on election night broadcasts, his professional interests and achievements were remarkably wide, as just a brief sample of his work shows. His three-part article ‘Ideas, Institutions and the Policies of Governments’ published in 1973 in the British Journal of Political Science, in which he suggested that variations in public policy across countries reflected not so much differences in institutions as differences in ideas and ideology, anticipated by decades the so called ‘ideational turn’ in Political Science. His 1976 Legislative Studies Quarterly article ‘Modes of Executive–Legislative Relations’, the leading article in the first issue and still taken by modern day students of parliaments as a starting-point for analysis, dissected the various ways in which parliamentary groups provided a check on government, distinguishing intra-party, opposition party, cross-party or non-party modes. His 1981 article ‘The Rise of the Career Politician in Britain – and Its Consequences’, also published in the British Journal of Political Science, has been enormously influential, and formed part of a more general strand of work on the motivations and incentive structures facing politicians, well illustrated in Running Scared, where he explained, as the sub-title nicely has it, why America’s politicians campaign too much and govern too little.
Together with his long-term close friend and colleague, Ivor Crewe, Tony published the definitive work on the rise and fall of the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, which was awarded the 1995 W.J.M. Mackenzie Prize (shared appropriately enough, given their history, with Brian Barry’s Justice as Impartiality). Later Crewe and King collaborated on The Blunders of Our Governments, a book using concepts from Political Science but written deliberately to reach a wider audience. It is never hard to detect Tony’s typically vigorous prose style in all that he wrote, a style that was to be put to good effect in The British Constitution, his tour de force on the transformation of the UK system of government in the later twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Amid this diversity, it is tempting to ask whether there was any intellectual commonality in Tony’s work or whether it consisted of heterogeneous observations fixed by brilliance of phrase. One answer is to be found in the unity of method that Tony displayed across his work, a method that combined the historian’s interest in the specific individual and the political scientist’s concern for the general type. Reviewing books he described as the ‘splendidly old-fashioned art form’ of political biography - including Pelling on Churchill and Morgan on Lloyd George - Tony suggested that what was missing from each was a concern for the general themes that US political scientists, including his close friend Richard Neustadt, had pursued: how leading politicians were perceived by those with whom they interacted, how they went about their work and what were their underlying psychological dynamics.
Given his methodological approach, much of Tony’s work would nowadays be characterized as case-orientated qualitative analysis. For example, discussing the power of the prime minister in The British Constitution, Tony went through all the prime ministers between Attlee and Blair assessing how far each of them could be judged dominant in relation to their cabinets, ‘dominant’ being defined by four explicit criteria. In place of bland generalizations, the reader is provided with an empirical analysis of individuals and their role-types according to an explicit scheme of classification. In ‘Modes of Executive-Legislative Relations’, Tony identified the set of logically possible relations between government and parliament, eliminating some on empirical grounds and showing how the remainder map onto parliamentary systems in the UK, France and Germany. The notation that he developed to present this scheme shows him defining the problem in Boolean terms in a way that was later to be formalised by Charles Ragin.
The interest in how the specific individual combines with the general type informed a second abiding theme of Tony’s work, namely politicians and the ways in which they define their roles and perform their tasks. Tony was a voracious reader of political biographies and memoirs, reading put to good effect in such papers as ‘The Outsider as Political Leader: The Case of Margaret Thatcher’ in 2002. There he distinguished the social outsider from the psychological outsider and from the tactical outsider, seeing Margaret Thatcher as an example of all three types, using her social and psychological outsider status to tactical advantage.
The third abiding theme in Tony’s work was understanding the art of government. Tony understood mass politics – how could such an accomplished student of elections not do so – but he thought about mass politics as the context in which the art of government was practised, or, as with those American politicians who were forced to run of office so frequently, not practised. It was not just the rise of the career politician that mattered for Tony, it was also the consequences of that rise for the conduct of public policy. The Blunders of Our Governments noted the failure of UK governments to engage in the military art of ‘backwards planning’, which involves specifying where you intend to go to and then working backwards to identify all the necessary steps on the way to getting there. An unfinished paper at the time of his death was on ministerial turn-over in British government, which also noted its consequences for all too frequent alterations of public policy. In short, Tony sought to identify the conditions for Weber’s ethic of responsibility in the profession of government and politics.
Tony took his own professional responsibilities seriously. Together with Brian Barry, he was a founding editor of the British Journal of Political Science. Although these days it seems extraordinary, when the two put the proposal to Cambridge University Press, it was opposed by luminaries in the Political Studies Association, lobbying the Press that it would be wrong to have a journal that was in competition with Political Studies and claiming that to call the journal the British Journal of Political Science would be to pass it off as the official journal of the Association, just as the British Journal of Sociology was the journal of the British Sociology Association. Barry and King were summoned to a meeting in Cambridge with Sir Frank Lee, formerly permanent secretary at the Treasury, but by then the Chairman of the CUP Syndics. Sir Frank interrogated them both, being particularly exercised about the proposed title. Barry and King explained how they had come to the name after the exploration of various alternatives and pointed out that the official journal of the British Sociology Association was called Sociology, not the British Journal of Sociology, which was separate and independent. Sir Frank concluded the meeting with the words were: ‘Gentlemen, I think you ought to know that I leave this meeting with a different opinion from that which I entertained when I came in.’
Tony loved to tell this story. Over the years he remained active in the work of the journal, as editor, editorial board member and referee. In his editorial capacity he always insisted that referees were advisors, not judges. He would give the example of what is now a highly cited paper by an eminent US political scientist, where the unanimous recommendation of the referees was ‘reject’. Tony thought otherwise, wrote a letter to the author explaining his reasons for not accepting the recommendation and setting out the changes needed before the paper could be published. Apparently the letter did the rounds in the author’s department eliciting a mixture of amazement, amusement and admiration.
Although his most familiar public persona was as the expert on election night broadcasts, Tony also undertook public service both on the Nolan (later Neill) Committee on Standards in Public Life, and on the Wakeham Commission on reform of the House of Lords. In 1994 he became a Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and in 2010 a Fellow of the British Academy. The PSA gave him a Special Recognition Award in 2007, and the Sir Isaiah Berlin Prize for Lifetime Contribution to Political Studies in 2015.
Amid all this, Tony never neglected his teaching responsibilities. Over a number of years, he and I taught and convened a first-year course on democratic ideas and institutions. Tony’s lectures were brilliant, well-crafted, amusing and wore their learning lightly. He insisted that he and I meet regularly each week with the class tutors to go over issues of teaching and marking, and he actively second marked essays before they were returned to the students. He also gathered together the most accomplished students in a special voluntary seminar that he ran. Whenever I think of teaching quality, I think not of bureaucratic process, but of Tony’s engagement. As he used to say, an academic department is not the Prussian military.
The last occasion on which I saw Tony was a few days before he went into hospital for the operation, the after-effects of which were to be the cause of his death. I wanted to hear his opinion of how one should think of executive discretion in the light of democratic principles. He, more than anyone I knew, had thought seriously about executive behaviour in the modern state. When we talked, he was his usual self: intellectually curious, willing to explore new ideas and probing on conceptual and empirical detail. We parted agreeing that there must be some middle ground between a strict rules-bound form of government and a Schmittian insistence on arbitrary discretion. I like to think that had those conversations gone on, we might have been able to define what that middle ground was.
Tony and his wife, Jan, were wonderful hosts, frequently inviting people to their house in the Essex countryside for meals and entertainment. Both were fond of music, often going to concerts in London, and running a small group that would listen to CDs of the same work in different performances, and then discussing their relative merits. To hear Tony give his appreciation of an improvised cadenza in a Beethoven piano concerto or the viola playing in the slow movement of a Haydn quartet was a pleasure in itself - just as it was a pleasure to go with him on architectural tours of cities, walks in the country or boozy lunches in a restaurant he had discovered. With his death Political Science will miss a towering figure of the last six decades. His friends will miss his wit, his insight, his vigour and, above all, the warmth of his sympathetic personality. He was, quite simply, exceptional.
I thank the following for their comments on an earlier version of this article: Nick Allen, Ivor Crewe, Jack Nagel, Ian O’Flynn, Meg Russell and David Sanders.
Read the University of Essex's obituary here.