Professor Gordon Smith: Pioneer in the study of German and comparative European politics
Monday 01 March 2010
Gordon Smith was a pioneer in the study of German politics and European comparative politics who spent most of his academic career at the London School of Economics. He was unusual in that he was a late arrival at the LSE, being appointed to a lectureship at the age of 45 in 1972. His book, Politics in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis, published that year by Heineman Educational, was a key factor. His disregard for the relatively modest salary was another.
Smith's book, a cross-national comparison of institutions of 19 western European states, broke new ground in that it moved the study of politics of European countries away from the description of major countries on a one-by-one basis to a comparative one. He chose a political-sociology approach with political and social forces having priority over constitutional and institutional provisions. A second edition appeared in 1976, and a third in 1980.
By that time it was a standard text, and eventually had five editions and was translated into Italian and, in 1992, Polish. Meanwhile, Smith's list of publications grew year by year with major articles appearing in such respected journals as Government And Opposition, Political Studies, The Political Quarterly, and the journal he co-founded, in 1978, with Vincent Wright, West European Politics.
Smith also co-founded the journal German Politics and helped establish the European Political Science Research Consortium and the Association for the Study of German Politics, whose chairman he was from 1986 to 1988. He was later elected an honorary Vice-Chairman.
Despite all this collaboration Gordon was not an easy man to know. Perhaps this had something to do with his early life. Born in 1927 in London, he was evacuated during the Blitz and left school in 1944. Military service followed, during which time he encountered at first hand a devastated Germany. On his return to London he decided to study politics rather than natural science, and in 1952 took a BSc (Econ) at the LSE. At that time this degree was not the most readily marketable and a series of what were for Smith unsatisfying years in personnel management and teaching civics to day-release apprentices followed at Bournemouth Municipal College.
Determined to broaden his horizons Smith also studied for an external degree in sociology. In all his endeavours he was encouraged by his Berlin-born wife, Dorothea Schlagel, whom he had met during his army service. She had been a fervent Social Democrat and remained one until the end of her life. She helped him with his research for a part-time doctorate on the German party system at the LSE. This was successfully completed in 1964. German politics and European political parties were twin interests for the rest of his life. This was at that time a Cinderella subject, overshadowed by French and American politics and the Soviet Union.
The appointment to a lectureship at London North East Polytechnic could be regarded as the start of Smith's academic career, as it was while he was there that his first articles appeared. At this time he was commuting from his Bournemouth home to London.
Smith joined the LSE just before Ralf Dahrendorf took over as its director, which was both an advantage and a disadvantage. Dahrendorf, the former Social Democratic politician, who left the party of his father for the Free Democrats, welcomed interest in his native Germany but could easily dismiss non-German investigators as dilettantes.
On reaching 60 in 1987, Smith postponed his retirement for two years to serve as chairman of a large and on occasion quarrelsome department. He also continued to supervise postgraduates. All his and Dorothea's efforts were rewarded in 1989 when he was finally appointed to a professorship at the LSE.
Gordon Smith, political scientist: born London 16 September 1927; married firstly Dorothea Schlagel (died 1994; one daughter), 1995 Anna (one son); died London 2 December 2009.
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