In a disquisition on British intellectual life in the twentieth century, Stefan Collini regretted the decline in the role of public intellectuals and noted in particular the absence of historians from such luminaries’ ranks. Although he stressed the readiness of historians to address wider audiences than academic specialists, he devoted extended attention only to A.J.P. Taylor, whose infatuation with generalizing and popularizing, and concern to entertain and to shock, demonstrated the dangers ensnaring eager habitués of the world of the tabloids and the sound media.1 Collini’s work raises the question of whether historians pay sufficient attention to the impact of each others’ work. While there has been long-standing interest in the legacy of the most polemical and best-selling historians and while recent attention has been accorded some historians’ work as public intellectuals, such interest is relatively narrowly focused.2 This is because the role of public intellectual has been defined beyond the reach of virtually all practising historians. Collini offers a definition which requires high academic standing in a chosen discipline, access to and influence over a wide public, a capacity to say important and interesting things to that audience and a lack of prescriptive attachments to other causes or organizations.3 An obvious response is that Collini’s model, by setting too specific a threshold, has excluded many practitioners who seek to influence significant but not sizable audiences, not least the sixth-formers and university students who form the overwhelming majority of those spending large amounts of time reading the subject, as well as those who teach them. Without ever reaching mass readerships, historians constantly produce books of synthesis and reinterpretation, as well as more accessible works of research, which are intended to shape opinion. In a world in which we learn to influence as much by nudge as by exhortation, by networks as by rallies and by nuance as by grand theory, sustained engagement with small but educated audiences represents a far from negligible role for the historian. If allowed thus to consider the role of public intellectual more expansively and more generously, I would offer an appreciation of the work of Keith Robbins as an example of the wider and unremitting efforts
of professional historians to engage in public persuasion and opinion-leadership. By moving beyond the world of the media don, it is possible to suggest that the work of professional historians relevant to ‘public’ discourse is more pervasive and even more impressive than Collini asserts.