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November 03, 2005

A Black Light Goes Out: Christopher Montgomery on Maurice Cowling

Posted by Christopher Montgomery

Following Maurice Cowling's death on 24th August 2005, the Social Affairs Unit has published essays on Maurice Cowling, his work and legacy by Michael Bentley, Jeremy Black, Stephen Davies, Kenneth Minogue and Andrew Thornton-Norris. We continue this series with the reflections of Christopher Montgomery on Maurice Cowling. Christopher Montgomery was the last undergraduate Maurice Cowling supervised at Cambridge and is the author of the forthcoming book The Crisis of Tory Leadership, to be published by the Social Affairs Unit.

The death of Britain's "foremost Conservative historian", in the words of the papers that reported it, was never going to be a matter of public commemoration. While the BBC, we can be fairly sure, has its, oh, Eric Hobsbawm-themed night on BBC4 taped and ready to go, our national clerisy were never going to find it in their hearts to report on Maurice's passing, as that would have entailed admitting his existence in the first place. For if Cowling did one thing above all else, it was to tell the rest of the world that they existed: that there was a dominant strain of thought in this country, that it did seek to perpetuate itself, and, most gratingly of all, that its own opinions, far from being the product of deliberation and calm reason were in fact shallow, inherited prejudices, unthought-out in the most part, and straightforwardly deceitful in the rare instances when these assumptions were dragged into the open.

Cowling's work — and that is the right term, for the labour was mighty — was to expose Liberalism to itself, and it had a suitably corrosive effect. Though, in almost conscious emulation of his intentionally comic, long, loping footnotes comprising name after unelaborated name as if in some ancient chant, the obituaries have recorded his influence on historians, politicians, journalists and the like, the truth is, Cowling was a singularity. He has no successor, his teachings were misunderstood by most of those who heard them — and he cared not one jot. Maurice's lack of commitment to the present, the past, or even really the future, was what gave him his timeless, ageless quality. There was a sense that he, or at least what he said, had always been here, and always would be, regardless of whether anyone listened or not. And it's only because he's dead now that those who heard him can say, without blushing too much at the priggishness of it, what he taught — and that's the truth.

The Application of Method
After the war, and before that, the formative wartime experience of exposure to a Cambridge repopulated by crusty, retired Edwardian dons, it took a lot to drag Cowling back to the University. And not unreasonably so, as matching up to the peerless self-confidence of seventy year olds for whom decline, if a word employed at all, applied to the Romans and not to ourselves, would take some time. The World, as represented by those powers in the land of long ago, the broadsheet Times, the "more readers than there are Communists in China" Express, and, well, the "Foreign Office", all called to him but didn't keep him in the 1950s.

The last institution, or at least that related part of it which operated out of the famed Levantine language school for secret people (the old Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, just outside Beirut), influenced Cowling, as far as I could make out, only inasmuch as it confirmed his scepticism about the wit of history's "practitioners". Some historians, often the better ones, feel compelled to modesty before the people who actually made things happen, and the contrast such action provides with those who merely scribble or talk. But then Maurice of course, more plainly than most historians, admitted that his historical purposes were present-day ones, and his spur, as much as anything else, came in the middle of the decade with the Suez crisis. The conformity of the reaction, and the analgesic properties of the memory loss that seemed to follow, served to place Maurice back on the track of saving history from its enemies.

Suez led directly, through the dead end of an unpublished Tory pamphlet, to the cornerstone of Cowling's historical stance: 1963's Mill and Liberalism. This wasn't his first book, which was The Nature and Limits of Political Science in the same year. Three decades after The Nature's publication it had regressed into being merely one of the grounds for tall tales about Maurice: he had renounced it, some would claim; at other times, it was the basis of his baleful, winking claim to have "invented" political science; for the more self-actualising, less well-tenured of his colleagues at Peterhouse, it was the reason why Galloway & Porter deemed Cowling the "remaindered king of Cambridge".

The Nature and Limits, in the most conventional form Maurice would ever submit to, attacked all the things whose inadequacy would have seemed certain and obvious to so many of his own supervisors. That, as Butterfield taught, Whiggish "progress" was self-serving, inevitabilist cant, that grounding politics, or thinking about politics, in "science" was a species of irrationalism as primitive as the most unregenerate religion, and that although "activity" could assist "explanation", rarely could explanation account for activity. These sentiments mystified his own age, but failed to appal it, and that was the success of Mill and Liberalism. All the precepts that flowed from that — that we were all required to "speak the language of Jacobinism", that we were being merely offered the freedom to do the right thing, and on and on the charge sheet went — cut directly against the Millite emancipation that appealed as much to the post-war "right" as it did to the self-declared liberals and leftists of the age. And understanding Maurice's desire to shake up the complacencies of other Conservatives explains a lot about Cowling's performance art.

God's Chosen Instrument
In his relationship to the Conservative Party, Cowling stood much as he suggested Hugh Trevor-Roper did as regards the Church of England, namely that Maurice was a sound Tory and a loyal member of the true Party established by Law among us. Throughout all the excitements of Powellism, Thatcherism and the bitter-sweet Portillo epoch thereafter, Cowling never had any truck with splitists, schists or any other manner of ideological enthusiast. "The Party is what we have to work with" he said, at the time of Maastricht, for example, his antipathy to "the Market" and all its works notwithstanding. And for all the cynicism, realism and disinterest astringently applied everywhere else, this acceptance remained throughout. No eternal virtue was imputed to the Conservative Party, still less to the people who comprised it at any given moment (and no credence at all, obviously, was given to the "ideas" they inadvertently mouthed). But the Party was there and the effort required to replace it with something "better" was suspicious to the point of risibility.

At Cambridge, Cowling reserved especial disapproval for those foolish enough to get involved with "CUCA", the University undergraduate Conservative body. Whatever force these imprecations had in the early years of the struggle, by the end of his time there (the early 1990s) they were indulgent curses, accompanied by much obvious pleasure in hearing rancid, teenage gossip. In this, he was a student of the artform, having seen so many of Major's hapless Cabinet pass before him, and appeared to regard student politicians with much the same pleasure as the gruff bachelor of legend had for the present of earnest and energetic kittens. There were subtle and low-key joys to be had in imagining what grisly forms CUCA's tinpot titans would take in twenty or thirty years time. His anecdotes about the CUCA of the past, and therefore of the ministers of the present, were always cheerfully malicious. Starlets of the start of the last decade like Peter Lilley and Simon Heffer were recalled if only for the punchline concerning the Secretary of State-to-be breaking down into tears because his CUCA committee schemes had floundered, and the admirable, and correct, indifference, of Heffer.

The exemplary callousness was not precisely moral instruction, but there was something classical about the indirection of the teaching method. Maybe had the figure on the other side of the supervision room been wearing a toga, rather than, say, a shapeless club-striped jacket, canary yellow cords and a pair of grey suede shoes, his limbs never quite meeting up where it seemed they really ought to, the ancient rhythms would have been still more obvious.

Cowling, for most of his time at Peterhouse, Cambridge's oldest and smallest college, conducted his supervisions at his set at the top of Fen Court, a sort of modernist seaside pier, whose back offices had somehow ended up stranded behind the College's unashamedly ugliest piece of Victoriana, Gisborne Court. Perched above Peterhouse, Maurice, by the 1970s, became the College's unwelcome mascot for the outside world. The influence attributed to the likes of David Watkin, Edward Norman and Peter Fuller in their respective fields acquired a coherence solely through Cowling's external reputation. I say "unwelcome" because even in Peterhouse, the reputation Maurice revelled in had to divide more than it united. The things commonly attributed to the College — snobbery, homosexuality, and anti-Semitism all being to the fore — interested him not, and were anyway undeserved, though I suppose there was some Anglo-Catholicism here and there. His closest academic friend, Elie Kedourie, died early in 1990, and deprived Cowling in retirement of probably his ablest fellow traveller. But beyond the kindred spirit of Kedourie, Cowling never encouraged imitation: Roger Scruton for one was, playfully:

a carbuncle [who] plagued me for years in my attic, writing some interminable book or other.
In contrast to other, introverted "schools", Peterhouse's historians lacked homogeneity, save for some suavely repulsive late efforts. The College isn't what it was, but then how could it be? Maurice's work was done long ago, and at least the last twenty years, outside of Religion and Public Doctrine, were enjoyment, and in this he differed to his American friends.

An English Way of War
In semi-retirement in his final years at the College, Maurice's favourite paper to teach was the History of Political Thought, and accordingly undergraduates would troop in and make what they could of, for example, "Marx's Apocalyptic Libertarianism" and wonder if those stories about scripts being thrown bodily off the roof of Fen Court, "balls" raining down upon them as they fluttered to earth, were actually true. Unshackled by a doctorate, Maurice by the close of his academic career was the glorious exception on the roll call of fellows, being plain Mr Cowling.

And his teaching methods brought back the past in other ways too. Essays, for example, were read to him, rather than, inconveniently for both sides, being presented to him the night before, "marked" in the morning, and then by means of a polite colloquium, supervised in the afternoon. No the old ways persisted, and supervisions, by preference, happened some good long distance after he had emerged from the Senior Combination Room, hours after Hall was over. A whisky-fuelled willingness to read was less of an imperative than was generally supposed, but the student was supposed to rhetorically perform, and unlike so many other supervisions, he was obliged to. Other dons had the ability to convince teenagers they risked being boring if they didn't put the effort in, but only with Cowling was there both the guarantee that the fellow would remain interesting, and that guilt would be what the supervisee would feel for being dull.

Essays, as and when they returned, were "marked" in the sense that along one, or sometimes both, sides of the script could run a black line, of variable length, and, depending it seemed on the felt marker used, differing, and perhaps runically significant width. The supervision room could have come from a stage set, in that, though underlit, the late night encounters always seemed to involve Maurice being illuminated from below. The length and breadth of both this room and his sitting room were covered, when I encountered him there, in stalagmites consisting of large chunks of what would become Volume III of Religion and Public Doctrine. But between the piled assaults on the secular, liberal intelligentsia of the last century, as often as not, Mills & Boon novels proliferated. One never had the feeling, familiar for example, as Maurice was with Kolakowski, that there was ever any pressing suggestion that he needed to be read twice.

History of Political Thought was, as I say, his hobby paper by the end of his teaching career at Peterhouse, but even then, there were large parts of it that had become so intrinsically "worthless" that even Maurice failed to see the prospect of twisting any fun out of them. From memory, it came in two parts, and by and large Cowling preferred not to teach, I think, the second part. It may have been the first that was tosh, but either way, it was momentary unhappiness when the bankers and management consultants of the future realised that they were being short changed in their tripos, and demanded Part I, or Part II of HPT as the case may have been, be taught to them. "Suburban fascists", "Irish reactionaries" and his other pets, for there is no point in denying that he had favourites, thrilled to this sort of self-epating education, but then everyone agreed it was all so much more relaxed by the end.

For a few years of his final years at Cambridge, and for a while beyond it, a near sinecure was arranged for Cowling at Long Island's Adelphi University. America, in the form of his friend and publisher there, Samuel Lipman, was something the clichι about Cowling (the Powellite reactionary unencumbered by Powell's romanticism) should have required opposition to, but in fact he enjoyed Adelphi, found its inmates gratifyingly more congenial than the middle British splodge that paraded in front of him in Fen Court, and, by the account of Sam's son Edward, made himself more than agreeable to the hostesses of Long Island's many, many drawing rooms.

Cowling, through the Lipmans, was a fraternal ally of The New Criterion's mission in America, which in turn had been inspired as much by the work of men like the late Peter Fuller, as it had by neo-Elliotesque sympathies. But Cowling, being the good Tory he was, knew that America's problems weren't Britain's problems, at least not yet, and so always contrasted the tone required there — embodied in Lipman's pugnaciousness, Kramer's rectitude or Kimball's seriousness — with what British circumstances entailed.

Come the end of the Cold War, with Cowling therefore living to see that "even the idiots know now that they don’t have to take Communism seriously", Maurice intoned against "cultural Marxism", or what would more crudely come in the 1990s to be called political correctness, as one of the principal dangers of the future. But the lack of alarm, about Soviet Communism, or Russia full stop, was one of those many things that separated Maurice from the majority of adhering Conservatives.

For Cowling, as for Powell, the Cold War was an illusion, leastways if one tried to take it seriously as an ideological conflict — and international Communism's main, if not only use, was the efficiency with which it could be used as a smear against the domestic and democratic left at home. Russia was Russia, and a threat only as an imperial one to the benighted Eastern Europeans, and as their lot was never meant to be a happy one, there was never any great point in losing too much sleep over their misfortunes. This attitude to how the Russian leadership regarded "their" Communism was, naturally, far closer to the mark than the ideological schema offered by ex-Marxists and their children, but it was a contemptuous tone that offended moral internationalists on the British right, and therefore made it irresistible. There was the hint of something similar in his attitude to America's culture wars, in that although he understood why the people there closest to him needed to wage their battles, he wasn't far off wondering if the force of their concern about their enemies wasn't what so often gave them their power over "the right".

What Remains is Something More than Sarcasm
Those taught by Cowling took away what they could. I remember, just about, that Burke was a Bad Thing, and that we, some of us stakhanovites, would dutifully compete to express our disapproval of Burke for his assorted misdemeanours. Truth to tell, what Burke did wrong escapes me at this juncture, though the certainty of his being in error remains, but there was, if we want to be prosaic, utilitarian justification for this, as criticism (of the sort we would be encouraged to subject Burke to, had we foolishly expressed, in the context of our understanding of the cosmos, some limited sympathy for) was a step towards negativism and negativism was the prelude to polite bloodiness. And that was how you dealt, at long last, with liberalism.

Another way of putting this was that you laughed at this most pompous of doctrines. Marxism was, of course, a job creation scheme, at the time of its Victorian inception, for those fearful members of the educated middle classes who wondered what a democratic twentieth century would mean for them and theirs. And being rigorous, selfish and to the point, there was often a lot of worth that could come from Marxian insights — but more than anything else, saying so, chortling as being a Tory Marxist was conceded, was just the best way possible of teasing all those strident cold war Liberals, earnestly all the while trying to disprove any charges against them of red fellow-travelling.

Julius Gould, a hero of Liberal economics, and a fervent anti-Marxist, was a favourite target for this sort of baiting, hence, thirty years ago:

The real objection to Professor Gould, however, is more far reaching. It is that under the banner of "liberal values" he consecrates as desirable an anarchy of opinions which ought in no way to be desired. A society ought to have opinions about which there is no fundamental disagreement and in relation to which it is not the business of universities to adopt a liberalising or questioning attitude.

If England is a liberal society in Professor Gould's sense, that ought not to be turned, as he turns it, into a matter of self-congratulation. It is a matter rather for gloom and regret that anyone as clever as he is should consecrate the unthought-out pluralism in which we live, and a matter for serious reflection that, so far as Marxists see this, they perform a valuable, destructive function in disclosing the gulf that divides the doctrinaire liberal from nearly the whole of the rest of the human race.

When Maurice retired in 1993, and his little kingdom at the top of Fen Court was dissolved, the swaying, vertical pre-chapters of RPD III went, his library was — and how I puzzled at this at the time — sold off, for a pittance, and even the set's strangely frightening bath tub, which looked like something somewhere between being a Sizewell cover-up waiting to happen and the venue for Aztec revivalist meetings, was eventually decommissioned by the College. Sadly the physical vigour Maurice brought to that end point was revelled in all too briefly as ill-health, and, eventually, the distance of South Wales progressively reduced his presence in his many friends' lives. The trip to Mumbles was, of course, a joy for those who made it, including, oddly enough Chelsea Clinton not so long ago, but it was both a waste and sadness that a retirement that had included swimming in the Irish Sea in its earlier phase was blighted by sickness for too long.

In the last five years of his life, Maurice worked on and off on papers which could, perhaps, under better circumstances have amounted to memoirs of a sort, but seemingly the material left can't serve that purpose. And so, last Saturday, Cowlingites and contemporaries gathered at the University Church for his memorial service.

Forgotten but not Gone?
Characteristically, Maurice's will inveighed against any such ceremony, and treating him much as most academics did, his immediate wishes were roundly ignored. Differing and complimentary addresses were given by: an ex-student (Michael Portillo), a peer (Peregrine Worsthorne), his publisher (CUP's Richard Fisher), and an academic consequence (Michael Bentley). And the congregation encompassed all Tory and intellectual life, from Frank Johnson, Simon Heffer and Christopher Sylvester in one corner, to David Watkin, Nicholas Vincent and John Adamson in another, and beyond even journalists and academics, engaging flotsam such as Tory MPs (notably David Ruffley and Oliver Letwin). Peterhouse was itself afterwards, with Oliver Letwin, for example, variously being claimed to be doing magic tricks for money, and a decent amount of drink was drunk.

One distinguished penseur mounted her own, inimitable tribute to the New Right's 1980s' high points by wearing a skirt three inches too short and two decades too late. The commonest sentiment on offer was that not merely the event itself, but the frequent expressions on offer as to Maurice's kindness, loveability, etcetera, etcetera was sure and final proof that he was dead, as were he still alive, none would have dared voice them.

And it was Maurice's voice that was absent most of all. The drawl he possessed was a great dramatic gift for, in avoiding both arch excess and hammy emphasis, it allowed great economy of effort in conversation. Or as those who didn't like him saw it, it made for an easy sneer. But what an age it was to sneer against. In the context of his times, Cowling stands out for all the things he could have been merely one aspect of. Suez for example. Maurice, though not quite, was very close to being the one sustained public reaction the crisis produced. Anywhere else, France, Germany, Russia, and not least America, such an episode (of diplomatic and imperial failure) would have led to a whole tribe convulsed with a stab-in-the-back mentality and a thirst for revanche. Its profound absence in Britain spoke to the prevalence of the Liberalism Maurice in due course so pointedly told was there all along.

We can look to what Maurice did do, rising as it so often did to the splendour of Amisian parable-anecdotes, with men like Gale, Worsthorne and Colin Welch. We can see them as being a sort of Bill Buckley-in-four-persons for a country, and a conservatism, on the way down, not up. We can laugh still at the myth of Peterhouse Maurice so gamely bid up (as he did, for example, at the PRO "disclosures" about how close Butterfield as master came to internment in 1940).

But for those who never met the man and won't want to read his books, there remains what he did for Toryism. Which was to remind us that it was all along a matter of tone, a question of a disposition, and not a programme or a pose. All the jokes that brought forward the untutored mind's appreciation of this point — "I suppose you're some sort of Libertarian. It's a pity the young don't realise the point of the Tory party is to maintain inequality" — palpably weren't pedagogy. It was to point out that there was, for those inclined to care, a purpose to Toryism, and that there was no shame in admitting that that was concerned chiefly with its enemies, and who those were most properly understood as being. Circumlocutions about, "whither power?" and all the rest of the "principle versus [allegedly electable] expediency" hoariness were dispensed with in a perfectly traditional manner. For it wasn't "power" (what did that amount to? having an agenda? seeing it done? being as one with the zeitgeist? or was it immanent somewhere within a near impenetrable clerisy, and therefore beyond the reach of here today, gone tomorrow, lever-pulling politicians?) that was at stake in Britain's specific political arrangements, but office.

Cowling, for all the academic determination to see him as a reaction to the bottom-up school, and therefore as someone who emphasised sectional unities across the party divide, between ministers and their most important peers, in opposition or just immediately outside "formal" politics, knew the power of place. If nothing else, being in office, if hardly at all being in power, displaces the others, and, allows for the enormously desirable prospect of governmental quietism, however much that might be pretended away in practice. This is the Toryism that:

should treat Liberalism and Marxism as similar sorts of doctrine and should approach the former more even than it approaches the latter with satire, ridicule and incredulity. It should feel impelled towards a diffidence, irony or detachment which, whether Christian or cynical, will enable it to avoid ethical earnestness; and it should do this not because ethical earnestness is dangerous but because it is earnest.
Thus far from abandoning a role for the Conservative Party, either in opposition or in office, Cowling gave to the Party a point regardless of its temporary political fortunes — and that point was resistance. There was more to Maurice that just his Toryism, and the particular sort he thought the country benefited from by the continuance of, but his words in 1978 on the subject are as relevant today as they were then.
The Conservative Party exists now, as at any other time since 1886, because those who perform the duties or acquire the benefits connected with inequality, do not want democratic arrangements to break down. They judge it better, if possible, to get part of what they want by acting effectively through the parliamentary system than to get a bigger proportion under some other sort of regime. They accept the fact that a balancing of costs is involved and that, if the price that is paid for parliamentary government is too high, there will be those who will want parliamentary arrangements superseded.

[Conservative Essays] has been written in the hope that parliamentary arrangements will be retained, that most of what is needed can be secured by rhetoric rather than force and that the function of the Conservative Party in these circumstances is two-fold — to press the existing elite and its replacements to think and act in a conservative manner, and to give public expression on their behalf to opinions that will help create a public sentiment of national solidarity with them.
[— "The Present Situation", Conservative Essays]

I'll miss the jokes. If the current Conservative Party has anything going for it, it's the chance that it's going to go on providing the laughs in its own distinctive way. Hazlitt's some distance from Cowling, but Maurice too liked:
a friend the better for having faults that one can talk about.
Since "Conservatism" in Britain has become that bit uglier in the last decade or so, it's due in no small part to its decreasing ability to laugh at itself. And if we can't do that, how on earth are we ever going to start laughing again at our own and other liberals?

Christopher Montgomery read history at Peterhouse, 1991-1994, and was, entirely by chance, the last undergraduate Cowling supervised there. The Social Affairs Unit will be publishing Christopher Montgomery's forthcoming book, The Crisis of Tory Leadership. To read further reflections by Social Affairs Unit authors on Maurice Cowling and his influence, see Maurice Cowling (1926-2005).

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"a carbuncle [who] plagued me for years in my attic, writing some interminable book or other."
- I will remember that description of Roger Scruton. Could come in useful someday - although calling Roger a carbunlce sounds a bit unfair - considering what vast effort must have gone into constructing the whole Scrutonian persona and appearance.

And talking of bitchy asides - am I not right in thinking that Julius Gould is infact a Trustee of the Social Affairs Unit?

Posted by: Cowardly Prof at November 3, 2005 06:17 PM

Who exactly were the "suburban fascist" and the "Irish reactionary"? Can they please come forward.

Posted by: Anon at November 4, 2005 06:33 PM

Anw which "distinguished penseur mounted her own, inimitable tribute to the New Right's 1980s' high points by wearing a skirt three inches too short and two decades too late"?

Posted by: Anon at November 4, 2005 06:38 PM

Will Christopher's book The Crisis of Tory Leadership - I see it has been trailed in today's Telegraph continue on the same bitchy course as this review? Young Christopher must truly have supped deaply of darling, iold Maurice's wisdom and method.

Posted by: Jonathan at November 4, 2005 06:42 PM

After reading this article, and despite my hesitation in discussing such things, I must admit to what one should, I suppose, call an emerging sense of wonder -- in an age, mind you, that tends to be stripped of mystery by scientists and ideologues chiefly on the Left -- that these many SAU articles on Maurice Cowling all share a single point in common (apart from that piece of typical clarity and wisdom provided by Professor Minogue) namely that the authors write the longest, most convoluted and generally unreadable goddam sentences that I have ever come across. Brevity is the soul of wit.

Posted by: s masty at November 4, 2005 07:42 PM

Yes , it was a hard read, but after two or three times of wading through the mud, I did come away with two nuggets:

(1) The difference, in theory if not in practice, between office and power;

(2) The link to Kolakowski. Now there's someone who can think and write clearly.

Posted by: Robert H. Olley at November 5, 2005 09:19 PM

"the authors write the longest, most convoluted and generally unreadable goddam sentences that I have ever come across"

precisely as Cowling did himself...!

Posted by: anon at November 6, 2005 05:37 PM

As another of Maurice's students, I question a few of Mr Montgomery's claims. He says, for example, that "Maurice, though not quite, was very close to being the one sustained public reaction the (Suez) crisis produced", Surely Maurice would have argued that Suez pushed David Astor's high "priggish" liberalism right to the forefront of the British national consciousness- where it has remained stuck ever since. And we are also told that "Maurice intoned against "cultural Marxism", or what would more crudely come in the 1990s to be called political correctness, as one of the principal dangers of the future". But Cowling equally also argued that Marxism had much more in common with his own brand of conservatism because it provided an objective body of knowledge that contrasted with liberalism's subjectivities. Enjoyed reading the piece, though, so thanks Mr Montgomery.
Roger Howard, author of 'Iran in Crisis?' and 'Iran Oil' (forthcoming 2006).

Posted by: Roger Howard at November 28, 2005 02:17 PM
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