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John Vincent

John Vincent is a professor of history at the University of Bristol. His books include The Formation of the Liberal Party, Disraeli and An Intelligent Person’s Guide to History.

Reforming the Lords

John Vincent, 16 March 2000

Mankind is bicameral as the sea is salt. In 1997 there were 58 bicameral parliaments. Within their respective countries, Nebraska and Queensland were the only states not to be bicameral; among nations, China, Sweden, New Zealand, Portugal and Denmark are the main exceptions. Bicameralism is rooted deep in history. It embodies two great, but unrelated, principles: aristocracy and federalism. Only more recently, and as an afterthought, has the notion of the need for a revising chamber been added as a fig-leaf.

Swearing by Phrenology

John Vincent, 3 February 2000

This is a rather relaxed book. As such, it may disappoint those who know the author through his brilliant contributions to early Stuart history, or his recent principled interventions in debate in the House of Lords. Its aim, a truly ambitious one, is to trace the continuities between the liberalism of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and that of Liberal Democratic politics today. Indeed, Conrad Russell goes further than that; he not only makes a claim for continuity over a very long period, but maintains that this sprang from a common root in liberal political philosophy, especially that of Locke, Bentham and Mill.

The Hollis Launch

John Vincent, 7 May 1981

First, what the book, which is dedicated ‘to the loyal members’ of British Intelligence, actually says. The foreword claims that since 1945 ‘the Russians have penetrated and exerted control over both MI 5 and the Secret Service.’ About a third of the book deals with Sir Roger Hollis, Director-General of MI 5 from 1956 to 1965, who fell under suspicion in the 1960s and early 1970s because of ‘two hundred examples of Soviet bloc penetrations’ of British Intelligence. Two other very senior officers also came under suspicion around 1966-7, but were completely cleared after arduous investigation, a conclusion fully endorsed by Lord Trend’s inquiry in 1974.

G.M. Trevelyan (1876-1962) burnt all his papers. His ‘Autobiography of an Historian’ (1949) is as the title suggests both narrow and concise. The sketch by a pupil, J.H. Plumb, published in 1951, is a survey of the books rather than the man. Mrs Moorman, herself the biographer of Wordsworth as well as a loyal daughter, rightly considers this is not enough, and has retrieved letters, chiefly early and chiefly to his brother, the Labour Minister, Sir Charles Trevelyan, which show the forces that inspired G.M. Trevelyan’s history. Her study makes her father accessible as a human being for the first time, relieves him from the imputation of being too much of a paragon to be interesting, and shows him, without hindsight and Whig interpretation, as a writer of distinct ideological and quasi-religious purpose, more aware of his limitations and his lack of self-confidence than of the recognition the world awarded. He now appears as a liberal bigot whom no socialist, Christian or conservative could consider non-partisan.

In one sense, as the advertising claims, this is ‘the only book to tell the full story of the Jeremy Thorpe affair’, for there is no other book that tells that story. Written by three journalists from the Sunday Times, it presents the existing state of knowledge, but tidied up and reduced to order, and with some ‘investigative’ embellishments probably added. Originality is neither claimed nor indicated, but except where inhibited by the lawyers’ red pencil this is a balanced and useful account of the successive phases of ‘the Thorpe affair’. It is not a biography of Mr Thorpe, let alone a political biography, but only an account of a particular chapter in his life, linked to an account of a trial and its background. If it is a biography of anyone, it is of Bessell and of Scott, who come alive on the page in a way that Mr Thorpe does not.

Jews on horseback

Peter Clarke, 10 May 1990

He remains one of the great outsiders and rogues in British politics: a man who lived down his earlier reputation as a radical to bring his biting sarcasm to the service of the Tories, always...

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Wigan Peer

Stephen Koss, 15 November 1984

One evening in 1935, after a ‘copious’ dinner at Grillion’s, Austen Chamberlain retaliated against Winston Churchill. Course after course, Churchill had harangued his companions...

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