Professor Andrew Thorpe

Profile

I was born and grew near Sheffield, and was educated at Henry Fanshawe School in Dronfield, in North-East Derbyshire. From 1980, I read for a BA in Medieval and Modern History at the University of Birmingham, where I was fortunate enough to be taught by some outstanding historians, especially in the fields of modern British, European, and American history, and graduated with first-class honours in 1983. After a year spent as a Repairs Ordering Clerk in the Housing Department of Sheffield City Council, I returned to academic life in October 1984 when I entered the University of Sheffield to research for a PhD in History, funded by the British Academy and under the supervision of Dr John Stevenson, on 'The British general election of 1931’. That election was, and remains, the largest landslide in British electoral history, with the Conservative-dominated National government, led by the former Labour Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, winning 554 of the 615 seats in parliament to Labour's 46. I was awarded my PhD in 1988.

I was appointed to a one-year Temporary Lectureship in History at the University of Exeter in 1987. At the time I anticipated that this would be a short stay in the South West, but when the University advertised a permanent Lectureship in Modern History in 1988 I was fortunate enough to win it. I was promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1996 and became Professor of Modern British History in 2002. I was Head of the Department of History between 2004 and 2007, and from then until 2010 was Deputy Head and Director of Research of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. I was Associate Dean for Research and Knowledge Transfer in the newly-formed College of Humanities from 2010 to 2014. I then served as Pro Vice Chancellor and Executive Dean of the College from August 2014 to December 2019.

In January 2020 I joined the University of Leeds as Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures. I am also a Professor of Modern History at the University.

Responsibilities

  • Executive Dean of the Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Cultures
  • Professor of Modern History

Research interests

My research centres on twentieth- and twenty-first century British political history, the history of party, and the history of international Communism in the era of the Communist International.

I have worked extensively on the history of the Labour party, and also on Communist party history, but – recognising that political parties cannot be seen in isolation – have also written on aspects of Conservative and Liberal history.

In addition, and importantly, I have always sought to place British political history within much wider economic, social, cultural and international contexts.  

Past projects

In 1991, Oxford University Press published the monograph based on my PhD thesis as The British General Election of 1931. The book made heavy use of archival sources, and was particularly innovative in its use of the papers of local party organisations. The book’s key point was that the Labour party’s defeat that year, although heavier than might otherwise have been expected, was not, in itself, surprising, and that the sensational events that led to the demise of the second Labour government and the formation of the National government in August 1931 were not, in themselves, game-changers in determining the course of British politics in the 1930s: instead, they exacerbated trends that would, in all probability, have come into play how ever the election had been fought.

Shortly after that book was published, I visited Yaroslavl’ in Russia as part of a Nuffield Trust-funded delegation looking into the teaching of History in Russian schools and universities in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In discussions with Russian academics, it became clear that, if I went to Moscow, I would be able to access the papers of the Communist International relating to the British Communist party, which up to that point had been effectively closed to foreign researchers. From 1993 to 1996, therefore, I spent a total of almost 4 months in Moscow, as the first British historian to work extensively on the archives in the 1990s. The end result was my book The British Communist Party and Moscow (Manchester University Press, 2000). There, I argued that the party had not been the hapless plaything of the dictates of Lenin and Stalin, and that while the Communist International was obviously hugely important, the party was also an outgrowth of a certain strand of British radical and revolutionary traditions.  

My latest single-authored monograph was published by OUP in 2009. Parties at War investigated the organisation of all the major parties in Britain during the Second World War. This project was funded by the British Academy and the AHRC and made very extensive use of constituency-level records, as well as national party records and the papers of politicians. It demonstrated the complex ways in which the war affected party organisation over the course of the war, showing, in particular, that the agency of party leaders, officials and activists was vital in sustaining party as the organising basis of liberal democracy. It also showed how, during and after the war, different groups chose to narrate and re-narrate their own experiences in, and of, wartime to suit current political debates and concerns.

The fourth edition of my History of the British Labour Party – the first edition of which was published in 1997 – appeared in 2014. It has become a standard single-volume history of the party.

More recently, I collaborated with my Exeter colleague, Richard Toye, on an edition of the diaries of Cecil Harmsworth for the Royal Historical Society’s Camden Series. Harmsworth was a younger brother of the press barons, Lords Northcliffe and Rothermere, but was also a Liberal MP in his own right, who achieved minor office during and after the Great War under Prime Minister David Lloyd George. The diaries, which we purchased for the University of Exeter Special Collections at auction, had been hitherto little known, and we were able to produce a full-length scholarly edition which casts significant fresh light on backbench politics and the decline of the Liberal party between 1908 and 1922.

Current project

I am currently writing up a major research project on the life and career of the politician Arthur Henderson (1863-1935). 

Henderson was a pivotal figure in the early history of the British Labour party, a one-time Gladstonian Liberal who became one of the first Labour MPs, three times Labour’s leader, architect of its 1918 constitution, and a senior minister in the first two Labour governments of 1924 and 1929-31. He was also important as a leading lay Wesleyan Methodist, and as a trade unionist, while in his later years he emerged as one of Labour's foremost foreign policy practitioners. After serving as Foreign Secretary between 1929 and 1931, he went on to serve as president of the (ultimately abortive) World Disarmament Conference at Geneva (1932-34), being awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1934.

This major figure lacks a detailed modern biography covering all aspects of his work: this project aims to use hitherto under-utilised sources to provide such a study. The book will not just offer a view of one politician’s life, however, but will illuminate the rich complexities and inter-dependencies involved in the development of a viable democratic Labour politics in Britain. 

<h4>Research projects</h4> <p>Any research projects I'm currently working on will be listed below. Our list of all <a href="https://ahc.leeds.ac.uk/dir/research-projects">research projects</a> allows you to view and search the full list of projects in the faculty.</p>

Qualifications

  • PhD History
  • BA Medieval and Modern History

Professional memberships

  • Fellow of the Royal Historical Society
  • Fellow of the Higher Education Academy

Student education

As Executive Dean of the Faculty I take a very close interest in student education. I have oversight of, and ultimate responsibility for, student education within the Faculty as a whole. But sadly one of the downsides of my role in senior management is that it does crowd out time that I could otherwise spend on being directly involved in teaching. 

Over the course of my career I have taught extensively on modules at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, including ‘Twentieth Century Britain’, ‘The History of the British Labour Party’, ‘British Party Politics in the Second World War’, and ‘International Communism in the Age of the Comintern’. 

My most recent contributions at my former institution were a source-based module on ‘Ramsay MacDonald, First Labour Prime Minister: Hero or Villain?’ and as part of a team-taught module on ‘Communist Lives’.

In the past I have been extensively involved in History curriculum refresh and reform. For almost thirty years I was continuously an external examiner for undergraduate programmes at a very wide range of institutions in England and Wales, and also for a number of years at the University of Malta.

I am a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. 

 

Postgraduate Research 

Leeds is an excellent location from which to research on twentieth and twenty-first century British history, and I would be very happy to discuss possible projects with potential applicants.

I would be especially keen to supervise students in the following broad areas, although the list is by no means exclusive:

  • The history of the Labour party.
  • Conservative party history.
  • The history of the Liberal party.
  • Communist party history.
  • Studies of electoral politics, at either a regional or national level.
  • The careers of politicians.
  • The history of politics and political parties in Yorkshire/northern England in the twentieth-century
  • Religion and politics in twentieth-century Britain.

Of course, each of these categories in itself contains numerous possible PhD research topics: the categories are merely broad indications of the kinds of fields that are available. 

In the past I have supervised PhDs on a wide range of subjects, including the following:

  • James Parker, ‘British trade unions and the Labour party in the 1930s’, 2018 (AHRC funded)
  • Philip Child, ‘Affluence and the tower block: Labour attitudes to social housing and urban poverty in affluent Britain, 1951-70’, 2017 (AHRC funded)
  • Simon Peplow, ‘The British riots of 1981’,2015 (AHRC funded) (published as Race and Riots in Thatcher’s Britain, Manchester University Press, 2019)
  • Richard Wevill, ‘The Washington Embassy and Anglo-American relations, 1945-48’, 2010 (published as Britain and America after World War II: Bilateral Relations and the Beginnings of the Cold War, I. B. Tauris, 2012)
  • Michael Callaghan, ‘John Aloysius Costello: The forgotten Taoiseach’, 2009
  • Susan Hess, ‘Evacuation in World War II Devon’, 2007
  • Neil Riddell, ‘The second Labour government, 1929-31, and the wider Labour movement’, (British Academy funded), 1995 (published as Labour in Crisis, MUP, 1999)
  • Garry Tregidga, ‘The Liberal party in the South-West of England, 1929-1959’, (University Research Fund funded), 1996 (published as The Liberal Party in South-West Britain since 1918, University of Exeter Press, 2000)
  • Michael Kandiah, ‘Lord Woolton’s chairmanship of the Conservative party, 1946-1951’, 1993

I have also acted as an external examiner for around 30 PhDs at a number of universities in the UK and abroad. 

<h4>Postgraduate research opportunities</h4> <p>We welcome enquiries from motivated and qualified applicants from all around the world who are interested in PhD study. Our <a href="https://phd.leeds.ac.uk">research opportunities</a> allow you to search for projects and scholarships.</p>