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August 31, 2005

Michael Bentley on Maurice Cowling (1926-2005)

Posted by Michael Bentley

Michael Bentley - Professor of History, University of St Andrews - knew "Maurice [Cowling] socially as well as many and intellectually perhaps better than any". Here Prof. Bentley assesses Maurice Cowling's influence both on those who knew him and more generally.

The death of Maurice Cowling on 24th August removed from English intellectual and political life a figure whose significance will elude precise evaluation for some time yet: the focus is too close. Obituaries have begun to attempt one but only by asking the wrong questions. Did he influence Margaret Thatcher? Is he responsible for Michael Portillo? Did he really say that we ought to be vile to liberals? Was "the scourge of liberalism" anything more than a Tory eccentric bathed in "genial malice"? These titillations have their place but they neither lend appropriate gravitas to a major thinker, teacher and author nor begin to address the serious issue raised by his biography. The issue can be put this way. What difference did Cowling's thirty years as a Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, make to the way in which political history was and is conceived?

There were, of course, other periods and preoccupations that mattered in the shaping of a man who almost made his eightieth birthday. Polemical journalism helped form a style with more weight than light. An early flirtation with the Church (terminated, he always said, when he discovered how little bishops were paid) passed away but the "spiritual ability" spoken of by his tutor, Charles Smyth, deepened at a level of ultimate privacy and almost certainly remained. His later years might have made for a different picture of his life's dynamics had not a heart attack, a triple by-pass and then the long struggle with debilitating illness altered all his plans for a productive retirement with his wife Patricia in South Wales. Looking back through these various eruptions towards Battersea Grammar School, the army and the non-political undergraduate, one is left again with the main proposition. It is the period from 1963 to 1993 that should hold the centre of attention because that is when Cowling made the Peterhouse History School special, when he exerted an unconventional but remarkable hold over those whom he taught and when his political writing and experience became a part of the public doctrine whose history he spent the last twenty years of his active work in depicting.

If any comment on what he achieved will prove speculative in the month of his death, I have at least the qualification of having known Maurice socially as well as many and intellectually perhaps better than any.

Cowling believed many things but above all he believed in belief itself. He saw life as a tissue of personal commitments and engagements and derived everything else from them. It was no good in his presence talking about matters sub specie aeternitatis – "I don't believe in sub specie aeternitatis" – because that would let in universals and the possibility of some sort of objectivism which he thought both stultifying and intellectually untenable. Belief and opinion were there to be exercised and enjoyed rather than argued, as he told a mystified Provost of King's: they made life the coloured and flavoured thing it ought to be.

History, conceived not as a generic name for the past but as the activity of historians, came under the same rubric. It offered a vehicle for engagement, opinion and doctrine. He expressed this thought badly when he said, as he regularly did, that he did not believe in professional history. The objection was not about people earning their living from writing and teaching history, nor about the lack of fit between the life of a history don and that of a barrister or surgeon. Rather, he wanted to imply that no manual of historical practice could ever be produced along the lines of a legal or medical textbook because historical work always reduced to opinion and belief. Its modes were discursive and persuasive, not reportive or descriptive. So the contrast was not between professional and amateur but between making truth-claims and seeking instead a certain dramatic authenticity. This commitment is what he brought to his thinking and teaching and it is regrettable that he did not formulate it more pointedly because it is one of his most powerful insights, one held long before anybody talked about "postmodernism".

Brighter students could pick it up from random remarks but Cowling never set out to establish a theory of what he did. Instead he made the teaching a form of practice that implied a theory without ever stating one. Each undergraduate sat there as an individual world to be invigilated and moulded, the victim of terrifying focus. Fixed by a penetrating eye (the other one went somewhere over your right shoulder), a student found himself disturbed by the sense of total attention and an awareness of sheer octane emanating from the armchair across the room. A pious thought, a loose phrase, an announced certainty - especially when validated by quoting some "authoritative" historian - would come back in a stinging rebuke. A pillar of the profession one would learn to call an "arse"; an entire genre of historical method or approach would turn out to be "balls". But the judgments also turned out to be more informed than their delivery might have led one to suppose.

Unlike some of his acolytes, Cowling made his dismissive judgments having read those whom he had decided to dismiss. The effect of all this was remarkable. In some it produced simple fear and loss of confidence; in others it generated excitement because nobody else talked as he did; in everybody there persisted the view that Cowling was different because he took you seriously and expected you take responsibility for your own mind. This odd characteristic reached other Fellows – they often wondered how Cowling could still find pleasure in the company of undergraduates after thirty years' teaching - and it leaked into the folk memory of students who never knew him. Ten years after his retirement I would be asked by undergraduates what he was like and I found them often wishing that they had had the chance of being taught by him. The more outrageous (and apocryphal) the anecdotes became, the more they felt a loss in their more anodyne environment.

This staining of young minds made for one form of "influence", unevangelical and unintended. A second lay concealed in the content of the teaching and writing during the first decade of Cowling's time at Peterhouse. He wrote the first of his two trilogies during that period and brought the notion of "high politics" into general intellectual currency. Behind it, though, one can detect a theory of political action often missed by those who repeat the keynote phrase as a mantra meaning simply that historians should study elites. Imagine a pyramid traversed by horizontal lines but not vertical ones. At the apex, stretching horizontally across all parties and shades of opinion, Cowling saw fifty or sixty politicians, civil servants and opinion-formers who make things happen. They operate in (often unstated) dialogue with one another rather than with the sectors beneath them in the hierarchy.

This means that anyone wanting to understand how the system works – and for Cowling British politics must be conceived as a structured system of behaviour rather than a random association of individuals – should address the interactions at the top of the system rather than imagining that explanation can come out of "history-from-below", the motif so current in the 1960s and against which he explicitly reacted. You do not make sense of the behaviour of people at the top by studying the aspirations and archives of people at the bottom. This destructive thought sabotaged a number of projects. It meant that histories of "the Labour party" or "the Conservative party" missed the point because they wanted to think vertically about communication within the system instead of across its categories. It made biography deeply suspect as an intellectual enterprise because it privileged individual behaviour by extracting it from the situations which gave rise to it.

These predilections struck observers as "cynical" because they seemed to imply an over-determined relationship between situation and action. But that was not the thrust. Cowling never denied that politicians could be principled people with strong ethical views. He denied that such people could ever succeed within English politics unless they made terms with the system in which they were obliged to function and which brought its own imperatives. This mode of criticism informed a number of high-level studies in the 1960s and 1970s by authors influenced by his thinking. It played an important part in cauterizing the more naοve outpouring of history-from-below.

Just as Cowling believed in high politics, he believed too in high thought. In place of politicians in this sector of his discussion he wanted to see a clerisy, dominated originally by the Church and then secularized into the liberal establishment that he saw around him. The idea of writing about the relationship between religion and English culture he claimed as a long-held project.

Long or not, it became an obsession from the mid-1970s and he put more of himself into the second trilogy on Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England than had seemed necessary in the first. As with his politicians, he made lists of individuals who should be placed at the apex of original and influential writing. The cascading surfaces of his tables would have pieces of paper with perhaps only one name on it – "Tolkien", "Elgar". Mythology and music had to be "in" because category was the thing that one had to transcend, as he had shown in the political books. Then off he trundled in the sub-biographical fashion that he never escaped and which to some extent contradicted the structuralist arguments on which the enterprise rested. Quite simply, he spent twenty years reading every major participant in the English intelligentsia and then made a tissue of their interactions and differences. The original manuscript strained the patience of Cambridge University Press and the truncated one strains the reader's. But the cumulative impression stamps itself on the mind by exposing the innerness of his victims. "You have to bash them over the head until they tell you what you want to know". It was a repeat of the tutorial experience.

Do the teaching and writing, the political journalism, the wide circle of acquaintance in Conservative society, add up to "influence"? The question becomes lost in issues about niceness or his being "right-wing" or his supposed contribution to Thatcherism. If the issue is whether people think and write differently because they found themselves in Cowling's company then only one answer makes sense. There are books, pamphlets, radio broadcasts, political speeches, jokes, telephone conversations and disembodied memories that carry the unique voice, vocabulary and prejudice.

If the issue is presented differently as a proposition about the intellectual coherence of that legacy, then much remains to be said because confusions and contradictions inhabit Cowling's thought as much as anybody else's and his refusal to probe his own preconceptions beyond the point of comfort produces a legacy of its own. I don't think he would mind that because it all came as part of a dramatic presentation.

He enjoyed his moments of play-acting and the vileness, of which he was always proud, often was intended to figure as a sort of inverted charm rather than a sour offensiveness. But it is easy, and a mistake, to view Cowling through his own mist of shocking observation and conclude that there was nothing behind it but social posturing. On the contrary, he intended to interfere with the heads of those around him and to make them see the world differently. His loathing for the self-appointed gurus of secular liberalism was entirely genuine and one should not trivialize that position by implying that he did not really mean it. If he failed to persuade the next generation that "resentment is a duty", he at least taught the previous one that it is possible and desirable to say "no" to a puddingy liberal consensus. He will be most missed at those moments when prime ministers, archbishops, mandarins and professors utter their consensual banalities as though their doctrines contained more than wind.

Michael Bentley is Professor of History, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Politics Without Democracy 1815-1914, (Blackwell Publishers, 2nd Edition 1999) and editor of Public and Private Doctrine: Essays in British History Presented to Maurice Cowling, (Cambridge University Press, 2002). To read further reflections by Social Affairs Unit authors on Maurice Cowling and his influence, see Maurice Cowling (1926-2005).


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