Saturday, 13 October 2007

A memorial meeting for Nelson Polsby

Today I attended a memorial meeting at Worcester College, Oxford, to celebrate the life of the American political scientist Nelson Polsby. Nelson was remembered with warmth by the many speakers which included the Chancellor of the University, Chris Patten who recalled when Nelson had come to observe him at work at the Conservative Research Department. Shirley Williams was in the audience, looking very sprightly.

Nelson Polsby was significant for the study of politics in the UK in at least three ways. First, he was of a generation of political scientists who had a real interest in politics, whereas at least some in succeding generations often seem to give priority to theory or technique over actual engagement with politics.

Second, he was not an Anglophile in the full sense of that word, but he had a great appreciation for and understanding of Britain (for example, reflected in a co-authored 1981 book Britain and its Discontents.) One speaker remarked that Nelson did attempt to imitate the upper class British accent, but seemed to think that everyone in that station in life seemed to speak like Roy Jenkins.

Third, he was one of the outstanding figures in a generation of American political scientists who saw Britain as a great comparator. Leon Epstein who died recently was in the same category. Another great figure is Harvard's Samuel Beer in his 97th year who took part at a panel at the APSA in Chicago in September. Younger political scientists in the US who look to Europe tend to be interested in the EU than a particular member state (invoking an implicit federal model in some cases).

I arrived in the morning for a planning meeting on a commemorative book and was almost bowled over by an academic procession going in the opposite direction. Headed by an academic in full regalia, it was made up of first year students of the College dressed in subfusc and heading to the Radcliffe Camera to matriculate.

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