You are here
Jean Blondel: an Appreciation
My friend and former colleague, Jean Blondel, died on Christmas Day 2022, aged 93. I had known him for just over 50 years, from the time I went to Essex in 1972 to take an MA in comparative politics under his guidance. He subsequently supervised my PhD thesis alongside two of his protegees, Val Herman and Jim Alt. As well as being an extraordinarily kind and generous man, Blondel fizzed with ideas and innovations. His ability to galvanise others to support his many intellectual projects was prodigious.
Blondel made his scholarly reputation in the English-speaking world with two books. Voters, Parties and Leaders (1963) was a brilliant summary of the interactions between the electorate and political parties and the roles played by leaders in mediating those interaction in postwar British politics. His Introduction to Comparative Government (1969) was much more than a mere introduction. It provided a framework both for how scholars should think about nation-states as units of analysis in comparative politics and for how they should approach the complex question of the influence of ideology on political perceptions and behaviour. Blondel was one of the first scholars, if not the first, to argue that the traditional unidimensional left-right continuum failed to capture the true complexities of ‘ideological position’. Rather, he argued that the ideological positions of individual or collective political actors should be conceptualised and measured in a 3-dimensional space. This consisted of an oligarchic/democratic axis (what proportion of the population should be allowed to engage meaningfully in political decisions?); a radical/conservative axis (to what extent does the actor seek to reinforce or to transform the status quo?); and a liberal/authoritarian axis (how should government achieve its goals – by consent/persuasion or coercion?). Blondel used the multidimensional space thus defined to build a typology of political system types and leadership styles, which he continued to write about, with wisdom and plain good sense, until just before his death.
Jean Blondel was appointed as the founding professor of the Department of Government at the University of Essex in 1964. His remit, from the university’s ambitious Vice-Chancellor, Albert Sloman, was to build a world-class political science department based on research excellence. Blondel’s capacity for institution-building rapidly showed itself. He proceeded to recruit researchers with either an established track record or a clear demonstration of the potential to produce internationally excellent research. As fellow-professors, he recruited Tony King, one of the leading specialists in the analysis of UK public opinion and institutions and Brian Barry, arguably the most renowned UK political theorist of his generation.
The entrepreneurial spirit fostered by Blondel propelled Essex into a leading position in UK and European political science. Blondel’s ability to persuade funding agencies to support his intellectually ambitious projects was remarkable. At Essex, he helped to secure the funding for Ian Budge to create the Essex Summer School in Social Science Data Analysis, an institution which continues to thrive, bringing expert scholars and students from all over the world to study the latest statistical methods for six weeks every summer. Blondel’s leadership inspired Tony King and Brian Barry to establish the British Journal of Political Science under their joint editorship. From the outset the BJPS was the top-ranked political science journal in the UK, and it remains a leading journal to this day.
The fullest expression of Blondel’s organisational abilities, however, came with his creation of the European Consortium for Political Research. How on earth he persuaded the charitable Ford Foundation to support the project in its initial stages is a mystery. I can only assume that it was Jean’s unique combination of intellectual clarity, determined persistence and Gallic charm that secured the seedcorn funding for what became the key vehicle for the development of European political science. The ECPR’s annual Joint Workshops, its journal, the European Journal of Political Research and its various schemes for supporting young scholars created a cohesion and common identity among political scientists working across Europe that could not possibly have been achieved without Jean Blondel.
Blondel left Essex in 1984 and subsequently took a chair at the European University Institute in Florence. This was the perfect location for him – institutionally, intellectually and spiritually. He was a passionate believer in the European project and a confirmed Italophile. In Florence he was able to deepen his network of research collaborators across Europe and to support the career development of generations of top-quality research students. Even when he retired from the EUI, he continued to be active in furthering the cause of Italian political science, supporting colleagues at the University of Siena and elsewhere in developing their innovative and intellectually challenging graduate research programmes.
I always knew Blondel was a great man. It was only as I got older, and found myself doing an increasing number of administrative and ‘leadership’ jobs, that I fully realised what a brilliant leader he was. He studied political leadership and he used the substantive knowledge thus acquired to inform his own leadership style and strategy. He understood the key to successful leadership is the establishment and maintenance of esprit de corps. He was an outstanding academic leader and role model for other would-be academic leaders. As a Head of Department, Jean set high expectations – and demanded high performance. He knew when to charm and when to lose – or to appear to lose – his temper. He knew how to effect change and how to carry opinion with him. He met individually with all staff members in order to gather information and to engage in gentle persuasion. This was not the mindless ‘appraisal and staff development’ process of contemporary university bureaucracies. Rather it was a series of relaxed informal conversations, over coffee or wine, that allowed even junior staff members to articulate their concerns directly to the Head. These conversations allowed Blondel to make sure that the staff member fully understood the reasons behind whatever he was proposing to do at the time. This high level of shared information, combined with a commitment to a common intellectual tradition and purpose produced an extraordinarily unified department -- in contrast to many other Politics departments in the UK and the US which were frequently riven by personal and intellectual differences.
Jean Blondel was a consummate political scientist and academic entrepreneur. European political science owes him an enormous debt. His continuing enthusiasm to pursue new intellectual horizons and his commitment to supporting junior colleagues across Europe in their own work will missed enormously.
Emeritus Professor of Political Science
Department of Government
University of Essex