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Michael Brock

Michael Brock is the author of The Great Reform Act and co-editor, with Eleanor Brock, of H.H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley. He is Warden of Nuffield College, Oxford.

A Very Bad Case

Michael Brock, 11 June 1992

This admirable biography answers nearly all the old questions about Herbert Samuel, but raises a few new ones. He was no more a ‘cold and dry person’ than Hugh Gaitskell was ‘a desiccated calculating-machine’. These descriptions, by Lloyd George and Aneurin Bevan respectively, reveal little more than the effects of personal irritation on imaginative Welsh politicians. In his final chapter Professor Wasserstein draws attention to ‘a fundamental innocence’ and ‘supreme intellectual self-confidence’ as two salient features of Samuel’s make-up. These characteristics, allied to immense industry and administrative capacity, invite a comparison with a British statesman of an earlier generation, Sir Robert Peel; and they made, as Peel’s career had shown, a dangerous combination.

Athenian View

Michael Brock, 12 March 1992

In seven of the nine chapters in this fine book Dr Collini depicts the denizens of the Athenaeum in its great days. T.H. Huxley, having left his umbrella at Matthew Arnold’s, asks his friend to ‘bring it next time you come to the club’. Leslie Stephen, elected in 1877 on the strength of his History of English Thought in the 18th Century, enjoys the irony that this defence of free thought has given him ‘admission to a respectable haunt of bishops and judges’. By 1850, the Disruption in the Kirk has done its work: the Athenians have moved south from Edinburgh. The dominance of the dons and of the British Academy is still below the horizon. The world of the ‘public moralist’ revolves around Waterloo Place.

They were all drunk

Michael Brock, 21 March 1991

If it still needs to be proved that Kipling’s realism was highly intermittent, those lines from his last years should do the job. His correspondence was sure to reach biographers and editors in the end. He could hamper, but not stop them. Ever since the launch of the Kipling rocket more than forty years earlier he had been far too famous for his letters to have been thrown away. At 24 he had not been six months in London before the Times had devoted a leader to his work. In that year, 1890, Henry James had termed him ‘the star of the hour’; R.L. Stevenson had pronounced him ‘too clever to live’; and Tennyson had judged him ‘the only one … with the divine fire’. Nine years later, news of his illness had taken precedence in London over that of the Pope. Professor Pinney has access to some 6300 letters, drawn from 138 collections and 135 printed sources.

People’s Friend

Michael Brock, 27 September 1990

No political reputation has fluctuated, and been disputed, more violently than that of ‘Lord Grey of the Reform Bill’. Soon after his retirement in 1834 the Courier pronounced that no other public man had ‘ever had so great a claim to the gratitude of his country’. Less than two years later an ex-colleague, John Cam Hobhouse, commented: ‘I am surprised how, by mere fluency of speech and arrogance of manner, this really inferior man has contrived to lead a great party, and to connect his name imperishably with the most splendid triumphs of British legislation.’ Seventy years ago the Northumbrian piety of G.M. Trevelyan’s Life evoked comments almost as sharp as Hobhouse’s. ‘When the Almighty wants anything really done,’ Augustine Birrell commented in the Nation, ‘he creates a man or woman foolish enough to believe that, if the thing were done, all would be right with the world.’ ‘Mr Trevelyan,’ said H.W.C. Davis, ‘sees this great whig through a golden haze which softens all asperities, and disguises whatever is irrational in a very complex, rather petulant, and too fastidious personality. Indeed the haze becomes a halo.’

Ruthless Young Man

Michael Brock, 14 September 1989

A review of this book has to start with its tragic and complex history. The official Life of Churchill was originally to be in five volumes. Randolph Churchill died in 1968 when only the first two of these had been published. The Trustees of the Chartwell Papers then invited Martin Gilbert to complete this multi-volume work, and the second Earl of Birkenhead to complement it with a one-volume Life. While Martin Gilbert and his team were at work Lord Birkenhead was to be the only other person given access to the Chartwell Papers: his book was not to be published until the last of Gilbert’s volumes had appeared.

Honest Graft

Michael Brock, 23 June 1988

Dr Searle began by investigating the radical right in Edwardian Britain. He soon decided that the accusations of corruption constantly made by its members deserved serious historical attention: they could not all be attributed to anti-semitism and ‘political paranoia’. This led him to widen the scope of his work until it comprehended the whole ‘plutocratic era’ from the 1890s ‘to about 1930’. It became his aim ‘to show the essential unity of a 35-year period … and to trace the connections between episodes … which combined to form … an intricate pattern of paranoia and suspicion’. He had to accept Walter Lippmann’s dictum. All that the historian ‘can really do’, this states, ‘is to write the history of the exposure of political corruption, in other words to describe and analyse political scandal’.

Did Lloyd George mean war?

Michael Brock, 26 November 1987

Bentley Gilbert is a historian well-equipped to strip off myths and expose facts. All his skills were needed here: during some seventeen years of ministerial life Lloyd George took a hand in five books about himself, and much distortion resulted. After the war, for instance, Ll.G. hoped that his long struggle against Naval expenditure had been forgotten. He recorded that in July 1908 he had told the German Ambassador of his willingness to borrow £100 million to maintain British naval supremacy. He did not record that in the same month he had blamed Britain for the naval arms race, telling a Queen’s Hall audience that the Dreadnoughts should not have been built. Other myths originated in Lloyd George’s tendency, especially when talking to an attractive young woman, to dramatise or improve on incidents in his past. He seems to have thought a spiritual crisis appropriate for a serious Welsh boy, especially for one who was later to exploit Nonconformist enthusiasm when himself an agnostic. He therefore gave arresting accounts of his spiritual torments on finding that ‘there was no one at the other end of the telephone.’ According to the careful estimate given here, there was some embroidery in these accounts.

Did more mean worse?

Michael Brock, 23 October 1986

John Carswell is uniquely qualified to provide an official’s chronicle of British higher education in the Robbins and post-Robbins phases. He was assigned to the universities desk in the Treasury in 1960 when the Robbins Committee was being appointed. He left the secretaryship of the University Grants Committee for that of the British Academy in 1977. As his historical work on the 18th century has shown, he writes well. His Thoughts on the Present Discontents may not quite match Burke’s: but they are cleverly marshalled. His many insights are highly informative. His few in comprehensions could hardly be more revealing.

Letter

More Margot

5 July 1984

SIR: In a very kind reference to our editing of H.H. Asquith: Letters to Venetia Stanley (LRB, 5 July) Professor Stephen Koss infers that Mark Bonham Carter allowed us ‘to consult but … not to draw directly on’ Margot Asquith’s diaries and similar family papers. We may have encouraged this inference by the phrasing of our thanks to Mark Bonham Carter, in which we refer to his...

Margot Asquith’s War

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Prime Ministers’ Pets

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In reviewing the Gladstone Diaries and the Disraeli Letters I must declare an interest. I am chairman of the committee which superintends the publication of the former and one of the research...

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