The Social Affairs Unit

Print Version • Website Home • Weblog Home

Use the buttons below to change the style and font size of our site.
Screen version     Print version:   
September 06, 2005

Jeremy Black on Maurice Cowling

Posted by Jeremy Black

Jeremy Black - Professor of History, University of Exeter - remembers Maurice Cowling and discusses his impact in the context of Elton, Namier and Plumb.

Personal reminiscences can add to accounts, and with Maurice Cowling my first encounter was richly indicative. As an undergraduate at Cambridge taking the Political Thought I paper, I heard Cowling lecturing on Hobbes. Whereas most writers on Hobbes focused on his politics, Cowling talked about religion and Hobbes' response to fairies, and thus the world of darkness and the occult. Stimulating and arresting in content, the lecture was anything but in delivery. It was delivered in a tired monotone by a man only just turned 50, as if he was determined to put off undergraduates. Years later over a glass, I asked him if that was the case, and he did not deny it. Indeed, he seemed amused that I recollected what was actually a lecture full of insight.

Focusing on religion may not seem novel, but, at the time, this put Cowling at variance with much, but by no means all, of the Cambridge History Faculty. Indeed his approach was very much a critique of the then fashionable approach to political thought. The Faculty was dominated by the left-of-centre secularism that had coated Whiggish progressivism with Marxist materialism, seeking to justify each with the scent of the other. Cowling believed in the historical role of political self-interest, but he had little time for the Cambridge consensus. As a result, he contributed greatly to the situation in the 1980s, depicted by one historian who had taught at both, that at Cambridge academics were divided by ideas, while at Oxford they were united by socialising, a remark that actually flattered both groups.

This division helped provide Cowling with his stage. He used his position as a fellow at Peterhouse in order to challenge the dominant view within the Faculty, as well as its most potent patronage structure. Much of this challenge was at the level of individuals, reflecting the extent to which intellectual and professional alignments work at that level, rather than at that of grand impersonal forces locked in deterministic structures and teleological paths. If, for example, J. H. Plumb, a key figure in the patronage system of the consensus, for whom Cowling had little time, wrote to a newspaper suggesting that Fernand Braudel should receive a Nobel Prize, Cowling replied in turn that Braudel was an evil determinist.

College positions were used to bolster the cause, although not always successfully so, as Cowling discovered when he backed Lord Dacre for the Mastership of the College in 1980, a conspicuous instance of a failure of the politics of patronage that stemmed from an uncharacteristic misreading of personality, and possibly an uncertain handling of varieties of conservatism. Dacre, in many respects, was a Whig. He was socially conservative, indeed a snob, but did not share Cowling's political views. Two years earlier, Cowling had offered Dermot Fenlon, very much an anti-determinist, a refuge when the latter wished to leave his fellowship at Caius. Fenlon in the event became a Catholic priest, but Cowling was careful to use fellowships in order to try to bolster more than good teaching. Indeed, just as he helped make the college very much one associated with history, so it was characterised in terms of a particular interpretation.

All of this seems very insular, and, in part, Cowling was just that. His preferred perch was Peterhouse, whose geographical location within Cambridge was symbolic of its marginal character, and he did not seek the national stage pursued, through television or easy writing, by figures such as Taylor, Dacre (as Trevor-Roper), let alone the modern stars of historical superficiality such as Schama, a beneficiary of Plumb's patronage.

Ironically, given Cowling's extensive experience of journalism in the 1950s, when he wrote leaders for The Times, Express, and Telegraph (albeit with only limited success), or his shortlived period as literary editor of The Spectator in 1970-1, Cowling had scant interest in communicating with the wider public. This was not so much a product of his top-down approach to politics, as a consequence of his somewhat cut-off persona. Cowling might have a very powerful personality, and act indeed as a guru, but this was very much on the intimate scale. His was the politics of the common room. As a lecturer, let alone a public figure, he had less weight, and his unsuccessful attempt to stand for Parliament in 1959 for a hopeless seat at Bassetlaw was not repeated. The Conservatives would have benefited from a parliamentarian of his calibre, but he might have proved very divisive, and in the 1960s men of ideas would have had a very uncomfortable time under Heath, who had little time for freethinking nor indeed for an historical consciousness.

Within Cambridge, however, Cowling was an effective supervisor. Thanks in large part to his efforts, Peterhouse was one of the top history colleges, rivalling McKendrick's Caius, and, as a result, attracting many able undergraduates. There was an intellectual feel to the project, and also clear academic success at a time when history was one of the leading subjects in the university, and not only numerically. There was no equivalent in Cambridge to PPE, while English Literature had made itself ridiculous with its faddish theorising. Cowling was seen by bright undergraduates as an academic of intellectual as well as academic calibre, and as a don with a clear message. His opposition to the consensus also appealed to many.

As a writer, similarly, Cowling was influential, largely on his particular stage, with the relatively small numbers who read and admired his works, but, unfortunately, he did not seek to offer an accessible synoptic work that might deploy his arguments over a considerable period, let alone an accessible work of national history. In recent decades, the Conservative cause has conspicuously lacked one of these, able to challenge the neo-Whiggish progressivism of the left, and its frequent denigration of the Britain of the past as state, empire, political culture, and social system. Nevertheless, those who read Cowling were offered powerful and competitive studies that challenged received wisdom and undermined the nostrums of the left. Mill and Liberalism (1963) presented liberalism in the person of John Stuart Mill as totalitarian in intention, his secularist utilitarianism a harsh elitism in practice, this a potent undermining of standard views and an iconic figure; while, in The Nature and Limits of Political Science (1963), Cowling challenged an increasingly-fashionable subject.

Cowling's three major political histories 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution: The Passing of the Second Reform Act (1967), The Impact of Labour 1920-1924: The Beginning of Modern British Politics (1971), and The Impact of Hitler: British Politics and British Policy, 1933 to 1940 (1975) were masterpieces of high political analysis, of the "five men and the Duke of Newcastle" approach to politics. This focus on political wheeling and dealing, around the gaining, retention, and use, of power, was a marked contrast to the habitual emphasis on progressive forces and standard interpretations, including the extension of the franchise and the rise of the Labour Party. The latter two books were particularly impressive, because, as yet, the inter-war period had attracted little top-rate writing or sophisticated analysis.

Cowling's focus on high politics was reminiscent of that of Sir Lewis Namier in his studies of the reign of George III published in the inter-war period, but had more of an impact because, in his latter two political studies in particular, he was addressing then totemic episodes and issues. They also had more of an overt theme than Namier's work. The comparison with Namier, another instinctual conservative, and outsider to the corridors of academic power, was an apt one. Both had more talent than many who decried them, and neither scaled the peaks of the profession, Namier famously being kept from Oxford. Neither was a populist, nor a comfortable read, but each offered much insight on individuals, their interactions and their use of power. In each case, there was also the instructive question of how the Conservative Party as a whole should best respond to the world of intellectual cut-and-thrust. All too often, Labour seems to have been able to make a better show of representing perceptive analyses and fashionable ideas.

Focusing on Conservative politicians in the recent past proved particularly attractive to Conservatives fascinated with politics, and Cowling was held to be especially influential in moulding the intellectual ideas associated with the Thatcher years. He did play some important roles. Indeed, in 1978, Cowling was a founder of the Salisbury Group, and he taught or influenced a number of subsequently prominent Conservative politicians and writers, including, as was made much of in the 1990s, Michael Portillo.

Yet much of this association between Cowling and Thatcher was made by non-Conservative commentators. Indeed, it is striking how far Cowling's approach was different to that of Thatcher. He did not share her commitment to fiscal policy, and his emphasis on calculation as a means of political action was not conducive to a leader who sought to reshape public culture and who was uncomfortable with a clubland approach to politics, namely it being crucially decided by small numbers. In many respects, Thatcher was a populist rejoinder to this world.

Moreover, Cowling devoted the Thatcher years to writing his three-volume Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (1980-2001), a work well removed from her clarity. In emphasising, in this study, the need for a Christian conservatism, Cowling produced a first-rate, massive-piece of scholarship, the arguments of much of which would have suited Conservative moralists. The recovery of Christian Conservative writers, most of whom had been ignored by progressive scholars, and several of whom had influenced Cowling as a young student at Cambridge, was particularly impressive, but also oddly foreboding of Cowling's possible future fate.

In some respects, there was a clear comparison with Geoffrey Elton, whom Thatcher made Regius Professor at Cambridge. Another conservative who also had no time for the agenda and machinations of the Plumb machine, decried progressive nostrums and fashionable intellectual ideas, and was not averse to the bottle, Elton also produced great works of scholarship but did not really engage in the public arena. Cowling's impact, however, was greater because he took more of an interest in Conservative politics and also wrote on recent decades. Elton, in contrast, although he took, as President of the Royal Historical Society, the wider role in the profession that Cowling did not seek, was less influential in the public sphere because he focused on the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, his concern with the Henrician court echoed Cowling's interest in high politics, even if Elton adopted the teleology of national self-assertion through Parliament.

Neither of the obituaries that I have read have discussed Cowling alongside Elton, or indeed Namier or Plumb. This is unfortunate, as they have therefore failed to capture the many ways in which Cowling can be considered, as well as the varieties of conservatism (Plumb of course not being a Tory).

A good companion, searching, witty, intelligently acerbic, and ready to pour the alcohol, Cowling inspired many he taught, and took the study of both high politics and Conservative ecclesiology forward with great dedication to scholarship. If he was not a populist, that was not his task, nor his timbre. For his willingness, to engage with the progressive consensus, he deserves much praise. He did so with diligence and vim.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. To read further reflections by Social Affairs Unit authors on Maurice Cowling and his influence, see Maurice Cowling (1926-2005).

Comments Notice
This comments facility is the property of the Social Affairs Unit.
We reserve the right to edit, amend or remove comments for legal reasons, policy reasons or any other reasons we judge fit.

By posting comments here you accept and acknowledge the Social Affairs Unit's absolute and unfettered right to edit your comments as set out above.
Post a comment

Anti-spambot Turing code

Creative Commons License
Except where otherwise noted, this site is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

The Social Affairs Unit's weblog Privacy Statement