Guest post by Professor David Andress.

About a month before Christmas 2020, in the depths of the UK’s second Covid lockdown, I had some news so extraordinary that I just started yelling, and had to run downstairs to tell my wife.

I had won a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship, one of 35 granted out of 210 applications. I had started drafting an application in the first Covid lockdown of the spring, trying to get something constructive out of the awfulness. And it had worked.

My project is about interpersonal trust in the politics of the French Revolution of the 1780s and 1790s. It aims to explore how revolutionary politicians and citizens used, and didn’t use, vocabularies of trust and distrust to describe their conflicts and aspirations, and to examine how structural opportunities for trust and distrust – such as rules on voter behaviour, conduct in public office, management of public communication – manifested trustful and distrustful tendencies in practice.

I think it’s a great project, obviously, and as it’s currently developing in its first funded year, something that gets ever-more intriguing and complex as it goes on. But why did the Leverhulme Trust decide to fund it, and not about 175 others? I don’t know for sure, but I have some thoughts.

One reason is perhaps that, as a historical project, the very first inspiration for it was more contemporary. I started collecting thoughts in a document after reading the 2018 reflections of a then-PhD student, Abeba Birhane, on the emergent notion of a technologically-enforced ‘social credit’ system in China. This soon overlapped with other reports about, for example, Klout, which had attempted to monetise giving individuals a ‘score’ for their online influence, and closed in that same year. Alongside that, of course, was the everyday reality of swimming in a  sea of personal recommendations for goods and services, whether via Amazon reviews, Trustpilot, or random Facebook comments.

This contemporary reality gave me my angle of approach to the eighteenth century. We are now, in many ways, ‘post’ ideas of stable social and cultural authority, that had been built up along with the institutions of the modern state. Eighteenth-century people were ‘pre’ those institutions, but they faced all the same dilemmas of ‘How to Trust?’, as I eventually titled my proposal. 

In the public realm, subjects of the pre-revolutionary monarchy were supposed to take the good intentions of royal authority very literally on trust, on pain of both political and religious sanctions. But in the private realm (that increasingly leaked into the public one) thinking hard and carefully about other individuals’ ‘credit’ was a well-established fact of life. And where ‘credit’ was already a calculation that involved both financial probity and social position, the road was open for it to become, in revolutionary turbulence, something far more tricky to navigate.

I could flesh all this out with detailed historical references, of course, but I like to think it was the initial concept that got the Leverhulme panel’s attention. I knew that, unlike RCUK bodies, the Trust puts proposals in front of a panel of laypeople, and relies more on self-selected applicant referees than on critical reviews. I had to make a new approach to eighteenth-century history seem relevant and worthwhile (I think it is relevant and worthwhile, naturally…) Being able to close a loop from past to present, to situate the uncertainties of then alongside those of now, gave the whole project a direction that was clearly visible from the opening lines.

And it worked.

Would you like to find out more about Leverhulme Trust’s Schemes?

On 25 May the University of Portsmouth will be hosting a visit by two officers of the Leverhulme Trust, Assistant Director Tracey Henshaw and Grants Officer Alison Rees.  This event will be of interest to anyone who has contemplated engaging with one of the Leverhulme Trust’s schemes.

To find out more and view the programme go to the eventbrite page here.