Obituary: Vincent Wright


Jack Hayward
Tuesday 17 June 2014 12:58

VINCENT WRIGHT was one of the very finest teachers and most innovative scholars of his generation of political scientists and modern historians, not merely in Britain but world-wide.

Despite a life full of achievement, he was at the height of his powers, at the forefront of both the study of the 19th-century history and contemporary politics of France and in the comparative politics of Western Europe. Whereas his particularising historical work was based on personal archival investigations, which is what he most loved to do, his generalising comparative political science was usually done in collaboration, which he always found especially congenial.

Wright described his "intellectual home" as the LSE, at which he took both his undergraduate degree and doctorate, as well as teaching there from 1970 to 1977. However, he was a self-taught scholar, who acquired his formative research skills in the departmental archives of Basses-Pyrenees at Pau. His understanding of French local politics was rooted in his knowledge of the day-to-day interaction between provincial notables and the prefects and sub prefects.

He could so easily have remained "a sceptically-minded and historically- sensitive single country specialist" and one side of his work showed that he never repudiated that early critical love of France or devotion to its micro-politics. His earliest books, Le Conseil d'Etat sous le Second Empire (1972) and Les Prefets de Second Empire (1973), not only ensured him a permanent place in the bibliographies of that period but the respect and affect of French administrative lawyers and the prefectoral corps for one who had shown such scrupulous insight into their craft as practised by their predecessors.

While at the LSE Wright was persuaded to write a very popular textbook, The Government and Politics of France (1978). Although pleased at its success, he resented the distraction of preparing new editions, which took him away from more scholarly pursuits.

Before his years at the LSE, he had taught both in France and at Newcastle University. It was the latter experience, in the Politics Department headed by Hugh Berrington, who became a close, lifelong friend, that a broadening pro-cess began which led him into becoming an ever more explicit exponent of comparative European politics. Contributory factors included his collaborative work with outward French political scientists such as Jaques Lagroye and Yves Meny.

Wright and Meny worked closely together at the European University Institute in Florence in 1980-82, Wright having been a Visiting Professor at Rennes University in 1979/80. However, what impelled Wright firmly in the comparative direction was his collaboration with an LSE colleague, Gordon Smith, first in teaching a postgraduate, degree on West European Politics and then jointly establishing a journal with that title in 1977. It was and is immensely successful, very much the brainchild of its two editors who ensured that its range and quality of content was up to their own exigent standards. One of Wright's great regrets will have been that he could not go on editing, beyond the grave, this cherished offspring of one who had no children of his own and desired none.

It was his 1977 move to Oxford as an Official Fellow that allowed Wright full scope as a postgraduate supervisor of countless doctoral theses, as an organiser of numerous exploratory seminars and the freedom to accept the many offers to be Visiting Professor in the US and on the Continent. The searching and stimulating personal attention he gave all his students often developed into lifelong friendships and research collaboration with those who went on to university appointments.

His enthusiasm for his subject communicated itself to all he encountered and imbued them with some of his own all-consuming commitment. The demands on his attention seemed boundless but Wright gave unstintingly. Although each demand could only be gratified within the limits imposed by the scarcity of the time available, every person received the full benefits of the advice and instruction solicited, delivered in a manner where superficial brusqueness did not conceal his transparent goodwill and generous support. Doctoral supervision helped to widen his interest, while his regular visits abroad - especially since 1992 to the Juan March Institute in Madrid - extended his extensive network with the best scholars in the field, often resulting in collaborative publications.

The comparative study of privatisation and regulation came to occupy an increasingly important place in Wright's publications from the late 1980s, just as local politics and centralisation had been a major focus in the previous decade. This involved him in editing collective works to which he generally wrote either important, scene-setting introductions or major chapters. His The Politics of Privatization in Western Europe (1989), co-edited with John Vickers, was followed in 1993-94 with revised French and English editions (Privatization in Western Europe) which allowed Wright to examine fundamental questions about property rights and public goods, as well as how the state and market society related to each other. He extended this particularly in The State in Western Europe: retreat or redefinition, published in 1994 as a special issue of his beloved journal as well as a book.

Honours came thick and fast to Wright, from abroad even more than in Britain. His election as a Fellow of the British Academy in 1995 gave him particular pleasure and he will be missed from the Politics Section as well as its Overseas Policy Committee. The range of research projects in which he was concurrently engaged, even when his strength ebbed away in 1999, is astounding. Fortunately, the fact that many of them were being done in collaboration will ensure that the results will be published in the coming months and years.

As his surname came almost at the end of the alphabet, Vincent Wright used to insist with characteristic generosity that - however predominant his own contribution - the attribution should respect alphabetic order. The posthumous publications, notably the comparative study of core executive co- ordination in six European states and a book with Sudir Hazareesingh on French Freemasonry at the dawn of the Third Republic, will per- petuate Wright's immensely wide- ranging and incisive contributions to political science and history.

His final months were made bearable by the ministrations of that most invaluable of supports in the last fight, the care of a close friend, Dr Basil Smith. In the intervals of respite from the pain of the cancer that was killing him and the effect of the medication reducing the pain, Vincent Wright continued with indomitable tenacity to apply his acute intellect to the unfinished work that remained his raison d'etre.

Vincent was the best of companions, writes Douglas Johnson. I particularly liked going with him to seminars and conferences in France. He was invariably stimulating and informative, but more particularly, things seemed to happen in his presence.

Vincent disliked the generalisations that haunt French history. They usually marked a complex and messy reality which he thought it his job to describe. Thus, when a distinguished French historian talked of individualism as a permanent quality of the French, Vincent took a delight in referring to those French writers, such as Gustave Le Bon, who had contrasted the qualities of Anglo-Saxon individualism to the oppressive collectivism of the French. When he considered the work of French institutions, such as the Conseil d'Etat of the prefectoral system, he sought to see beyond the generalisations of administrative law, and to speak rather of professional connections and family relationships. He discussed how a place could be won, how it was won and how, with a change of ministry, it could be lost.

He could be very tough. At my seminar in London, he stood up to the redoubtable Annie Kriegel. He could be dismissive of historians who ended up by telling stories about politicians (but he liked to discuss how Chirac was uncharacteristically unprepared for the election to the mairie of Paris in 1977).

He was also mischievous. He introduced me to the author of many weighty volumes, saying that I was critical of his works. We were in a Paris street at the time and I was all the more disconcerted when Vincent immediately excused himself and left us. I was then asked by the author why I disagreed with his works. As I had not read them I found the ensuing discussion difficult. When I later reproved Vincent for his actions, he explained that it was good for me to meet the most boring man in France. "And," he added, "the most boring man in France is the most boring man in Europe. That's what's known as French exceptionalism."

Vincent Wright, political scientist and historian: born Whitehaven, Cumberland 6 August 1937; Lecturer, Newcastle University 1965-69; Visiting Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford 1969-70; Lecturer, London School of Economics 1970-71, Senior Lecturer 1971-74, Reader 1974-77; Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1977-99; Professor, European University Institute, Florence 1980-82; Einaudi Professor, Cornell University 1988-89; FBA 1995; died Oxford 8 July 1999.

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