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Sing Tantarara

Colin Kidd, 30 October 1997

Secret and Sanctioned: Covert Operations and the American Presidency 
by Stephen Knott.
Oxford, 258 pp., £19.50, November 1996, 0 19 510098 0
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The Long Affair: Thomas Jefferson and the French Revolution, 1785-1800 
by Conor Cruise O’Brien.
Sinclair-Stevenson, 367 pp., £25, December 1996, 1 85619 637 2
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American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson 
by Joseph Ellis.
Knopf, 365 pp., $26, February 1997, 0 679 44490 4
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Slave Laws in Virginia 
by Philip Schwarz.
Georgia, 253 pp., $40, November 1996, 0 8203 1831 0
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... In his lifetime an unyielding critic of priestcraft and superstition, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) stands today at the heart of a cult which has been variously described as America’s ‘civil religion’, ‘the religion of the Republic’ and ‘American Shinto’. As individuals and families, Americans worship their own gods, or, more commonly, God in their own way: but collectively, as citizens, they learn the creed, and participate in the rituals of a sacralised American Way of Life ...

Men in Aprons

Colin Kidd: Freemasonry, 7 May 1998

Who’s Afraid of Freemasons? The Phenomenon of Freemasonry 
by Alexander Piatigorsky.
Harvill, 398 pp., £25, August 1997, 1 86046 029 1
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... Our experience of Freemasonry is one of the minor peculiarities of the British. From The Grand Mystery of Freemasonry Discover’d (1724) and Samuel Prichard’s Masonry Dissected (1730) to Martin Short’s Inside the Brotherhood: Further Secrets of the Freemasons (1989), the dominant genre in Masonic literature has been the ‘exposure’. Rituals, passwords, oaths, handshakes and symbolic imagery pique the curiosity of the uninitiated, or ‘cowans’ in Mason-speak ...

Endless Uncertainty

Colin Kidd: Adam Smith’s Legacy, 19 July 2001

Economic Sentiments: Adam Smith, Condorcet and the Enlightenment 
by Emma Rothschild.
Harvard, 366 pp., £30.95, June 2001, 0 674 00489 2
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... Among the intellectual figures who have shaped the modern world Adam Smith stands out as someone who doesn’t frighten the laity, might be positively welcomed indeed by middle England. Should the neighbours catch a glimpse of the Wealth of Nations sitting on the bookshelf alongside Thatcher’s memoirs or the latest Delia Smith, there’s no risk of ostracism ...

Writing the History of Middle Earth

Colin Kidd: Edward Gibbon, 6 July 2000

Barbarism and Religion Vol 1: The Enlightenments of Edward Gibbon, 1737-64 
by J.G.A. Pocock.
Cambridge, 339 pp., £55, October 1999, 0 521 77921 9
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Barbarism and Religion Vol 2: Narratives of Civil Government 
by J.G.A. Pocock.
Cambridge, 422 pp., £55, October 1999, 0 521 77921 9
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... Tall, silver-haired and bearded, with a mesmerising voice and beguiling manner of delivery, John Pocock has long struck me as the Gandalf of the historical profession. The range, altitude and stylistic sophistication of his writing seem almost other-worldly, though legend has it that his distinctive accent derives from a small community of Channel Islanders in New Zealand ...

Clear Tartan Water

Colin Kidd: The election in Scotland, 27 May 1999

... An embattled oil executive with personal experience of the formidable ‘Scottish lobby’ once observed that you could tell when a planeload of Scots had landed at Heathrow because the whining noise continued after the engines had stopped. For the past thirty years, since Winnie Ewing’s triumph for the Scottish National Party in the 1967 Hamilton by-election, the rest of Britain has become ever more accustomed to hearing Scots drone on about their distinctive identity and needs ...

Damnable Deficient

Colin Kidd: The American Revolution, 17 November 2005

1776: America and Britain at War 
by David McCullough.
Allen Lane, 386 pp., £25, June 2005, 0 7139 9863 6
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... Their resolve fortified by the sturdy civic virtue of Cato and Brutus, and their idea of republican self-government indebted to Greco-Roman models, the founders of American independence deferred to the authority of the ancients, even as they embarked on a revolutionary political experiment. George Washington, for example, identified himself with Cato of Utica, whom the 18th-century British knew best through the medium of Addison’s popular tragedy Cato (1713 ...

Smut-Finder General

Colin Kidd: The Dark Side of American Liberalism, 25 September 2003

Hellfire Nation: The Politics of Sin in American History 
by James Morone.
Yale, 575 pp., £25, April 2003, 0 300 09484 1
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... Some aspects of the American political system can seem opaque and mysterious to the outsider. In particular, the Constitution, which British journalists regularly confuse with the Declaration of Independence, is calibrated so as to correct the arithmetical simplicities of an undifferentiated popular will. The Presidential election of 2000 introduced the world not only to the vagaries of the franchise in Florida, user-unfriendly butterfly ballots, and the arcana of chad – hanging, dimpled, pregnant and penetrated – but also to the constitutionally mandated authority of the Electoral College ...

William Wallace, Unionist

Colin Kidd: The Idea of Devolution, 23 March 2006

State of the Union: Unionism and the Alternatives in the United Kingdom since 1707 
by Iain McLean and Alistair McMillan.
Oxford, 283 pp., £45, September 2005, 0 19 925820 1
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... At the time of the devolution referendum of 1997, doom-mongers feared that the Scots were about to join ‘a motorway without exits’. Separation from England seemed inevitable in the long run. En route, Scottish politics would be hampered by a systemic instability. After all, the anti-devolutionists whined, the Nationalists needed to win only once in Scottish parliamentary elections to bring about independence; to preserve the Union, the parties of the Union needed to win every time ...

Hybridity

Colin Kidd: The Invention of Globalisation, 2 September 2004

Birth of the Modern World 1780-1914: Global Connections and Comparisons 
by C.A. Bayly.
Blackwell, 568 pp., £65, January 2004, 0 631 18799 5
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... Globalisation presents formidable challenges for history, a discipline which is congenitally nationalist. The academic study of the past emerged during the 19th century in tandem with the rise of European nationalisms, and remains coloured by its origins. This sinister twinship wasn’t acknowledged, however, until in recent decades historians began to confront their subject’s provenance and the ways in which this early nationalist imprint had distorted its agenda and approaches ...

A Matter of Caste

Colin Kidd: Alexis de Tocqueville, 22 March 2007

Alexis de Tocqueville: Prophet of Democracy in the Age of Revolution 
by Hugh Brogan.
Profile, 724 pp., £30, December 2006, 1 86197 509 0
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... Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-59) presents several faces to the modern world. His measured acceptance of the new forces of democracy unleashed by the American and French Revolutions made him an icon of moderate centrist liberalism. However, he has also had his champions on the right, at least among sophisticated Cold Warriors determined to maintain connections with a broader liberal tradition, including, in his native France, Raymond Aron and Jean-François Revel, for whom Tocqueville’s oeuvre was the sole haven of grace and trust within a canon of modern political philosophy whose prescriptions – from right as much as left – seemed to lead to mass extermination or indoctrination ...

Coalition Monsters

Colin Kidd, 6 March 2014

In It Together: The Inside Story of the Coalition Government 
by Matthew D’Ancona.
Penguin, 414 pp., £25, October 2013, 978 0 670 91993 2
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... Common​ sense in British politics tends to be aligned with the wisdom of party managers: that the electorate abhors uncertainty, and is incapable of understanding either internal party divisions or Continental-style coalitions. Only very occasionally, when the whips are thwarted by force of circumstance, do the voters – and indeed a frustrated cadre of pragmatic and independent-minded politicians – escape the iron cage of partisan constraint ...

Double Doctrine

Colin Kidd: The Enlightenment, 5 December 2013

The Enlightenment and Why It Still Matters 
by Anthony Pagden.
Oxford, 436 pp., £20, May 2013, 978 0 19 966093 3
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... In the course of 15 years teaching history at the University of Glasgow, with between a hundred and fifty and two hundred students in my classes, I inevitably received a few complaints. Some have stuck in the memory. ‘He made us read a whole book by Hume.’ Or the student in a class on 19th-century intellectual history who grumbled about having to read books from the anthropology and biology sections of the library; surely that wasn’t part of a history degree? A tiny minority of students found fault with revisionist analysis which punctured reassuring prejudices, not least where contextualisation seemed to verge on extenuation ...

Europe, what Europe?

Colin Kidd: J.G.A. Pocock, 6 November 2008

The Discovery of Islands: Essays in British History 
by J.G.A. Pocock.
Cambridge, 344 pp., £18.99, September 2005, 9780521616454
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Barbarism and Religion. Vol. III: The First Decline and Fall 
by J.G.A. Pocock.
Cambridge, 527 pp., £19.99, October 2005, 0 521 67233 3
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Barbarism and Religion. Vol. IV: Barbarians, Savages and Empires 
by J.G.A. Pocock.
Cambridge, 372 pp., £17.99, February 2008, 978 0 521 72101 1
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... Few areas of the humanities have undergone such a remarkable transformation over the past half-century as the history of political thought. Students were once introduced to it by way of its giants – the likes of Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Marx. Rather than a living discussion among contemporaries, between great thinkers and lesser fry, political thought was reckoned to be a more elevated – if stilted – affair, of giant responding unto giant, sometimes across centuries of silence ...

The Irresistible Itch

Colin Kidd: Vandals in Bow Ties, 3 December 2009

Personal Responsibility: Why It Matters 
by Alexander Brown.
Continuum, 214 pp., £12.99, September 2009, 978 1 84706 399 1
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... Ever since the rise of Margaret Thatcher, personal responsibility has been the irresistible itch that the Conservative Party dare not scratch – at least not in public. Notwithstanding the party’s boosterish slogans of enterprise, freedom and low taxation, many of its elderly members – and some of its politicians – have long held to a more cautious ethos of middle-class respectability, restraint and downright frugality ...

A British Bundesrat?

Colin Kidd: Scotland and the Constitution, 17 April 2014

... Whatever​ the outcome of the independence referendum in Scotland this September, it will be followed by an extensive inquest into the workings of the British constitution. In some quarters inquiries have already started. The Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee of the House of Commons issued a report in March last year titled Do We Need a Constitutional Convention for the UK? The Liberal Democrats’ Home Rule and Community Rule Commission has advocated ‘home rule all round’ in a new federal union ...

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