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Jonathan Parry

Jonathan Parry teaches history at Cambridge. He is currently finishing a book about Britain and the Middle East in the 19th century.

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry, 6 February 2020

After four years​ in the trenches fighting about Brexit, it’s with palpable relief that we’re finally turning to more engaging topics: the rights and wrongs of Andrew and Harry. Not everyone has succumbed: there are still rationalist anti-monarchists criticising us for trivialising our discourse with unwholesome royal gossip. They’ve been making the same objections for two...

The Party Paradox

Jonathan Parry, 19 November 2019

Will Remain – or Rejoin – persist as a potent political identity, or eventually lose traction? Will Labour be able to return politics to ‘normality’ – especially if it manages to neutralise or turn to advantage its ‘Corbynite’ image? Or will the later stages of Brexit create new tensions, over the extension of transitional arrangements, over the Union, or over the relationship with Trump’s United States? Will parliaments remain hung and create a constitutional crisis, bringing into question the electoral system, prompting a movement in favour of proportional representation or something else? The problem is that unless Brexit is quickly left behind, it is difficult to see how the future does not involve further damage to the existing party system. This might lead to its effective reconstruction, in a way that is currently not obvious, but it might generate serious anger and contempt at the failure of the political class. In that case, all bets are off.

At the time of writing, just after Parliament ‘took control’ and held eight indicative votes on alternative outcomes on 27 March, five things can be said. The first is that the British constitution is more robust, flexible and capable of dealing with intensely difficult issues than excited media commentators suggest. There are deeply rooted checks and balances that work against the assumption of arbitrary power by anyone, and this is understood by all the major actors. Prime ministers have to respect the norms of Parliament, however frustrating that may be when they lack a majority.

John Tyndall’s Ascent

Jonathan Parry, 21 March 2019

On 21 December​ 1859 John Tyndall, a professor of natural philosophy at the Royal Institution, set out to measure the structure and movements of the Mer de Glace, a glacier above Chamonix. In previous summers he had collected data on several Alpine glaciers, but no one had ever attempted to do so in winter. He got to Folkestone but bad weather meant crossing the Channel was impossible and...

The Origins of Our Decline

Jonathan Parry, 30 November 2017

Simon Heffer​ has had an idea. He has had them before, but he has fattened this one up into a book of enormous proportions. Huge quantities of factual narrative have been injected into it, in the hope of beguiling reviewers into acknowledging its historical respectability. For all that, the underlying argument is simple – the title gives it away. Britain began to go to the dogs in the...

Mapping the Middle East

Jonathan Parry, 18 October 2017

On display​ in the Dutch House at Kew Gardens, the nursery of George III’s children, is a map copied by one of the royal infants from the jigsaws used by their governess, Lady Charlotte Finch, to teach them geography. It indicates, with affecting but spurious precision, the territorial boundaries of the 12 tribes of Israel, in what the children, like almost everyone else in the 18th...

Mid-Victorian Britain

Jonathan Parry, 13 May 1999

In 1867, the British Government bought the V&A a cabinet, made by Messrs Wright and Mansfield, which had won the highest award at the Paris Exhibition of that year. It was 12 feet high, and made of satinwood, with an elaborate marquetry of coloured woods, gilt mounts and mouldings and Wedgwood plaques. It was an impressive piece, but more for its enormous size and laborious attention to ornate detail than for its gracefulness. It was, in other words, a classic example of Mid-Victorian taste. This volume in the New Oxford History of England is a fitting tribute to the qualities of that cabinet. Which is not to say that we should compare the author’s craftsmanship to that of Messrs Wright and Mansfield (though there are similarities). Rather, this is a book that celebrates the materialism of Mid-Victorian society, perhaps more unashamedly than any previous general history. Theo Hoppen is fascinated by the business of earning, spending and status, and his treatment of politics, religion and culture is profoundly and intriguingly affected by this concentration on profit, rank and display. This is the book’s major strength. Whether its relentless realism is also a weakness is a matter of taste.

The Real Founder of the Liberal Party

Jonathan Parry, 2 October 1997

Those politicians who know little of academic life tend to assume both that history will take them at their own estimation, and that it will be written by disinterested Solomons, free from prejudice, passion, envy and the desire for fame or money. William Lamb, second Viscount Melbourne, prime minister in 1834 and 1835-41, had no such illusions. He loved reading history because it pricked the pomposity of vain and foolish ‘great men’. But he also knew that historical judgments were relative and that historians were no worthier than the dynamic men whose errors they condemned from the safety of their desks. He vowed that he ‘would prefer to sit in a Room with a Chime of Bells, ten Parrots and one Lady Westmorland to sitting in a cabinet with Lord Macaulay’.

Holborn at Heart

Jonathan Parry, 23 January 1997

Fifty or sixty years ago, there were many people for whom Gladstone still mattered. This can hardly be said today. He has become more and more marginal to our preoccupations, partly because those preoccupations have changed, and partly because historical work on him has made him appear more remote: more churchy, more Victorian than the Victorians. This marginalisation has been much less noticeable in the case of Disraeli, who in death has proved even more flexible than in life. Despite his superficially enigmatic and exotic air, he seems much the happier of the two to be reclothed in the fashions of the day.

Duffers

Jonathan Parry, 21 September 1995

Timothy was the timid Forsyte, the one who retired at 40, anxious that his career as a publisher was sapping his reserves of energy. Energy was the greatest resource of his five incurious, unphilosophical brothers, the tea merchant, the solicitor, the estate agent, the mineowner and the rentier, who turned £30,000 into £1 million in the second half of the 19th century and were Galsworthy’s symbols of the middle-class backbone of Victorian England. As a Forsyte, Timothy had, needless to say, rather more energy than he feared: he saved £2000 a year and died aged 101, worth five times what he had been on retirement. But his brothers would have done more with his savings: Timothy put his money in Consols and earned a trifling 3 per cent per annum. From the 1870s onwards, government stock was regarded with little more than contempt by active investors; it was for widows and orphans.

Dear George

Jonathan Parry, 22 December 1994

A building inhabited by George Nathaniel Curzon became a building with a history – one written by himself. Envisaging his own presence there as the latest episode in a colourful pageant of stirring deeds and raw emotions, he wanted that pageant to be properly chronicled. Sitting in Government House, Calcutta, he reflected, ‘If these stones could speak, what a tale they might tell’ – and told it for them in a book that he saw as his literary monument, to be read hundreds of years after his death. He commemorated many of his residences – Bodiam and Walmer Castles, Tattershall and Kedleston – between hard covers. He lovingly restored most of them and left two to the National Trust, of which he was a strong advocate.’

Crawling towards God

Jonathan Parry, 10 November 1994

One small but telling difference between the political culture of modern Britain and that of previous centuries lies in our apparently insatiable appetite for self-serving political memoirs. Until this century, the genre was decidedly unfashionable – much less so, for example, than in France. It would have been considered disreputable for any 17th or 18th-century English politician to leave the kind of memoir written by Cardinal de Retz, which was not only a brazenly exaggerated account of his own actions but an open celebration of his ambition, cynicism and lust. Like a number of French memoirists, de Retz wished to leave a record of his personality; for him the function of autobiography was to present ‘faits vus à travers un tempérament’. Englishmen were not so keen on confessing their passions; they also had a more reliable way of defending their honour, consistency and patriotism, because of the centrality of Parliament to 18th-century politics. It was in public speaking to one’s peers that one explained one’s actions, declared one’s principles and asserted one’s consistency and integrity. This did not change in the 19th century – though there was an increasing demand for political biography, which was almost invariably pious and posthumous. The Foxite Whigs became the first leading politicians (as opposed to court observers) to write memoirs. They were enthusiasts for French culture and for history; they were believers in open government; they were inventors of a permanent party of principle; and their party tradition set particular store by honour and fame. Lord Holland’s were the first published reminiscences of a major politician, Brougham’s was the first full autobiography, and Lord John Russell’s the first broad-canvas memoir by a former prime minister. Even so, these were not generally regarded as good examples: Holland had an exotic reputation, Brougham’s Life and Times was an egotistic fantasy and Russell wrote his book too late in life for it to have any coherence.’’

No Gentleman

Jonathan Parry, 23 June 1994

‘Entrepreneur in politics’: how many aspirants for power – most recently Silvio Berlusconi, Ross Perot and Michael Heseltine – have traded under that description. On the basis of a successful business record, they have claimed to be equipped to perform startling political feats – cutting through red tape, banging heads together, turning the country round, getting us on the move again. But is business like politics? What can the businessman contribute, and what are his disadvantages? Joseph Chamberlain’s extraordinary career is one good source of answers to those questions.’

Footing the bill

Jonathan Parry, 9 June 1994

The eighth Duke of Marlborough was ‘rude, erratic, profligate, irresponsible and lacking in self-control’, his son was ‘a paranoid and anti-semitic reactionary’. Randolph Churchill was ‘rude, spoiled, unstable, headstrong, irresponsible and argumentative’. Ivor Guest was ‘an incorrigible snob and social climber’; his son Freddie was ‘a snob, a playboy and a lightweight’. Winston Churchill was ‘a shameless cadger and incorrigible scrounger’ who ‘ate, drank, gambled and spent to excess’. F.E. Smith was ‘a drunk, a gambler and a spendthrift … rude … and ruthless’. The second Baron Sackville was ‘lonely, unmarried, taciturn, disappointed and embittered’; the fifth Baron was ‘self-centred, ineffectual, delicate, neurotic, lonely and melancholy’. Gerald Strickland was ‘too aggressive, too intemperate, too belligerent, too quarrelsome … too ambitious, too intolerant, too vindictive’. Harold Nicolson’s brother died ‘a lonely, miserable, embittered failure’; Harold and his wife were ‘marginal people’; Lord Curzon’s political career was ‘an ultimate failure’.…

What Gladstone did

G.R. Searle, 24 February 1994

This impressive study of Victorian politics is built around a challenging thesis: that Gladstone, far from being the creator of the Liberal Party, was in fact a maverick who stumbled into the...

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Sacred Crows

John Skorupski, 1 September 1983

The culture, of the first fifty years or so of this century – ‘Modernism’ – comes increasingly to be seen in historical perspective: as a period of the past with its own...

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