Obituary: Professor James Bulpitt
Tuesday 25 May 1999
His classic book Territory and Power (1983) was a masterpiece of historical synthesis and highly original. He showed how the political elites in SW1 had for long been prepared to let local government go its own way. While Westminster dealt with the "high" politics of Empire, foreign policy, defence and the economy, local councillors dealt with what was dismissed as "low" politics - refuse collection, roads and schools.
For much of the 20th century this produced what Bulpitt called a Dual Polity, one in which there was a good deal of independence between local and national government. By 1979, however, Mrs Thatcher and her allies concluded that a more politicised and high-spending local government was threatening their autonomy and conduct of "high" politics.
A landmark paper, "The Discipline of the New Democracy", in 1986 in the journal Political Studies, transformed perceptions of Thatcherism. The claims that she was an ideologist, implementing the ideas of Hayek and Friedman, or the captive of economic interests, or motivated by her own personal experiences were dismissed by Bulpitt. What he showed was that her government simply wanted to do a competent job. She developed what he termed a "statecraft" to manage the party, win general elections, shape the political agenda and government competently.
Monetarism, for example, was as much about politics as economics. Abandoning incomes policies as an anti-inflation tool meant that government did not have to make compromises with trade unions. Other policies, on industrial relations, local government, privatisation and resisting claims by the European Community were all about restoring autonomy to the centre.
Political activity for serious- minded politicians was essentially about gaining political power and exercising it. Obvious perhaps, but over-looked in many of the commentaries about politics, and particularly about Thatcherism; her objectives were traditional but her methods novel.
Bulpitt was an outstanding teacher and his courses on British government at Warwick University were eagerly followed by good students. He was provocative, demanding, even bullying. If students were not prepared to think for themselves and stand up to him, too bad. In spite of such inspirational qualities it is likely that today's quality assessment procedures in higher education would find him wanting.
Few universities celebrate the life of a member of staff. That the Vice- Chancellor of Warwick University recently chaired such an event and that it drew a large audience was a mark of Jim Bulpitt's remarkable impact on the university. He was a founder member of the Politics Department when the university was established in 1965 and remained until his death of a heart attack at the age of 61.
He was born in Wembley in 1937 and studied at the universities of Exeter and Manchester. After spending a year as a research fellow at the University of Milan and then a three-year appointment at the University of Strathclyde, he arrived at Warwick.
Bulpitt was not one for large grant-aided projects but was primarily interested in undergraduates. They in turn gained from mixing with somebody who had read and thought a lot (he prepared his lectures until the last moment and beyond), had a quirky way of looking at conventional wisdom, and expressed his views vigorously.
Bulpitt only wrote when he had something to say - heresy for the "publish or perish" school of academe. Having something to say meant questioning established assumptions and examining topics in a fresh way. He refused to write text books or literature reviews, was involved in few collaborative projects, and was not impressed by publishing deadlines or externally imposed assessment criteria. In the climate in which universities operate in the 1990s, this disdain was a risk. It also explains the delay in his being promoted to a chair until 1992.
Yet his long periods of publishing inactivity were punctuated by works which changed the way people looked at a topic. While others talked of the benefits of interdisciplinary study, he practised it, drawing heavily on history and economics. When he addressed conferences, people would crowd in, expecting fireworks and they were rarely disappointed. When others were speaking, his grimaces would indicate his dissent and were the prelude to a robust refutation.
There are many paradoxes about Bulpitt's career. A professor at one of the leading research universities in the United Kingdom, his publication list was modest; forceful and abrasive in scholarship, he was gentle in personal relations; politically conservative, he was radical, even non- conformist, in his views; a believer in institutions, he was highly individualistic and sometimes a contrary member of them; original and insightful, he at times either lacked the self-confidence or energy to bring ideas to fruition. One reason for inactivity was his wish to get his analysis just right. For him, reading books was the enemy of writing them.
Yet James Bulpitt's slim body of published work is likely to be read and quoted by students for decades to come. What remains in the memory of colleagues and students is his colourful personality and politically incorrect behaviour.
James Graham Bulpitt, political scientist: born London 22 May 1937; Professor of Politics, Warwick University 1992-99; married 1972 June Carless (two sons and one stepson); died Solihull, West Midlands 5 April 1999.
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