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Wright, Vincent (1937–1999), historian and political scientist, was born at 31 Quay Street, Whitehaven, Cumberland, on 6 August 1937, the son of Walter Hogarth Wright (d. 1953), a coalminer, and his wife, Mary Teresa Kinsella (d. 1997). He attended Whitehaven grammar school, but at sixteen left to join the treasurer's department of Burnley corporation. While there he studied part-time for A-levels, then did national service in the Royal Navy (1955–7), and subsequently enrolled for the BSc (Econ) at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), where he gained a modest finals result in 1960. Despite that, William Pickles, the leading specialist on French politics at the LSE, encouraged him to go to France to begin doctoral work and in 1965 he gained a London PhD with a thesis on the politics of the département of the Basses-Pyrénées between 1848 and 1870. By this route he became absorbed in the administrative and political history of nineteenth-century France and a pioneer in using both official and private French archival sources for this period. His book Le conseil d'état sous le Second Empire (1972) was the first of two distinguished contributions to French administrative history which established his reputation in that field. The second, derived from his doctoral thesis, was Les préfets du Second Empire (1973, jointly with Bernard Le Clère) and dealt with the role and character of the prefectoral corps in the mid-nineteenth century. His concentration on France at this stage in his life was confirmed by the appearance of The Government and Politics of France (1978), an elegantly written textbook which, as three subsequent editions demonstrated, was long-lasting and popular. This book, though it continued to reflect a keen sense of the influence of earlier history, also marked a shift of focus to problems of government and politics in the contemporary world.

After some early experience at the University of Bordeaux, Wright really began his academic career in 1965 with a lecturership in politics at the University of Newcastle. He moved in 1970 back to the LSE, where he became successively senior lecturer and reader (1974). Then in 1977 he was elected to an official fellowship in politics at Nuffield College, Oxford, where he remained until his death. Though it is doubtful whether he found Nuffield College a particularly congenial intellectual milieu, his appointment there was ideally suited to his temperament and scholarly interests. It gave him complete freedom to pursue his steadily widening research interests, to write as much and as often as he wished, and to devote himself wholeheartedly to building up the many intellectual contacts and friendships that he formed not only in France, but in other western European countries too, especially Italy and Spain. This wide knowledge of people and places admirably complemented his historical sensitivity and contributed much to the fluency and perceptiveness of his many contributions to comparative political analysis. From the early 1980s onwards as editor, contributor, and collaborator he initiated and steered through to publication a wide range of books dealing with such matters as the governance of the evolving European Community, the role of the state in contemporary industrial societies, the problems of public policy making in complex societies, regionalism, and the relations between politics and administration. Alongside this substantial output he continued to produce many articles testifying to his mastery of French political and administrative history. Foremost among the preoccupations of his life from 1977 until the end was the joint editorship of West European Politics, a stimulating and widely read journal launched by Wright and his colleague at the LSE Gordon Smith, early in 1978. The high standards maintained by this journal owed much to Wright's talents as a stern yet sympathetic editor.

Vincent Wright had a keen sense of humour and brought some of the attributes of an impresario to his academic endeavours, especially in his later years. He had outstanding talent in persuading friends and colleagues to write chapters for books on themes which he thought important, to join in research projects, to take part in conferences or seminars, or to advise one of his graduate students. For though Wright had no formal teaching duties at Oxford he enjoyed organizing seminars (to which he made incisive contributions) and was a devoted supervisor of research students. In the wake of his many academic links in western Europe he became a familiar figure at conferences and colloquia, adviser to several new academic institutions, and the holder of visiting professorships in several universities as well as at the European University Institute in Florence. Academic honours came to him from several quarters and in 1995 he was elected a fellow of the British Academy. But Wright often reacted to such signs of public recognition with a touch of self-mockery. At heart he remained a very private person who greatly valued the company of his friends and gained most intellectual pleasure from exploring the archives of France. Here he could be sure of finding yet more evidence of that inescapable quirkiness of human behaviour which, so he firmly believed, sets limits to the generalizations of the discipline he formally pursued. For it was French history to which he was really dedicated—so much so, that, even when struck down by a painful cancer, he devoted his remaining energies to completing books on freemasonry in provincial France towards the end of the Second Empire and on the préfets appointed by Gambetta at the beginning of the Third Republic. He had collected archival material on these topics over many years, often with the help of his partner for thirty-three years, Dr Basil Smith, who sustained him during his final illness. Wright died at Sobell House, the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, on 8 July 1999, and was cremated in Oxford, on 13 July.

Nevil Johnson

Sources  

The Independent (14 July 1999) · The Guardian (21 July 1999) · J. Hayward, ‘The incomparable comparatist: Vincent Wright’, West European Politics, 22/4 (1999) · S. Cassese, ‘In memory of Vincent Wright’, International Review of of Administrative Science, 65 (1999), 467–71 · WW (1999) · record of memorial meeting, 16 Oct 1999, Nuffield Oxf. · V. Wright, ‘The path to hesitant comparison’, Comparative European politics: the story of a profession, ed. H. Dualder (1997)

Likenesses  

photograph, Nuffield Oxf.

Wealth at death  

£154,466: probate, 1999, CGPLA Eng. & Wales