Paul Smith

Paul Smith’s edition of Bagehot’s English Constitution came out this year.

The British Empire attained its maximum extent just after the First World War, but the peak of imperial visibility and imperialist sentiment at home was arguably reached two or three decades earlier, most colourfully in the great imperial pageant that marked the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The thumping Unionist electoral triumph of 1895 was confidently ascribed by Sir Robert...

One’s Rather Obvious Duty

Paul Smith, 1 June 2000

How bogus was Baldwin? When he said in 1925, ‘I give expression, in some unaccountable way, to what the English people think’, the statement was, as Philip Williamson notes in this ambitious new assessment, ‘in any literal sense … untrue’. Similarly with his claim to be ‘voicing what is in the minds of the dumb millions of this country’, though there...

To be the author of the best-known work of history never written is a guarantee of enduring celebrity, but also of lasting ridicule. On the marble bench in Venice where, by moonlight, in 1879, he expounded to an enthralled Herbert and Mary Gladstone the project of his great history of liberty, his ‘Madonna of the Future’, as he called it, Lord Acton was courting nemesis. For ‘moonlight’ his detractors have tended to read ‘moonshine’. His defenders have countered the impression that he wrote no history by representing that in fact he wrote a good deal; but they are heavily dependent on his early journalism and on the lectures published after his death by J.N. Figgis and R.V. Laurence. There is no great work to count in the research assessment exercise of the ages, only a vast assembly of materials, to some grand in the nobility of conception and thrilling in the promise of transcendental wisdom which they convey, to others a profoundly depressing monument to the union of pedantic burrowing with lack of will and courage for composition. Even Acton’s best friends sometimes despaired. Asked maliciously by Eddie Hamilton ‘whether there was to be any result from such wondrous accumulations of knowledge’, W.E. Gladstone thought that Acton would have difficulty in finding a publisher for a dozen volumes on liberty, ‘but being so well versed in history, especially that of last century, why should he not write a memoir of Madam Dubarry?’‘

The war that broke out in 1914 was the first in which highly industrialised and urbanised states were to be found on both sides, and industrial muscle and urban stamina counted for as much as military professionalism, conscript grit and peasant stoicism. How far urban stamina could be relied on was not the least of the questions troubling nationalists in the years before the war. Big cities readily produced outbursts of jingoism in national emergency, or of intolerance when supposedly national values were challenged. But, alongside the clerks who ‘mafficked’ in London and the students of the Action Française who disrupted the Sorbonne lectures of Professor Thalamas (regarded as a traducer of Joan of Arc) stood groups less obviously inclined or adapted to answer the nation’s call. Nationalists feared the great towns as the seats at once of lust for gain and taste for luxurious ease which sapped the will to sacrifice self for state, and of the proletarian alienation and socialist militancy that placed the class before the national struggle. They need not have worried. The ability of each of the states concerned to represent its war as one of defence turned the flank of a socialist movement which was far from having eradicated in its adherents instincts of patriotism and habits of obedience.‘

Scrum down

Paul Smith, 14 November 1996

Though citing the suggestion that for South Africans ‘the rugby scrum was symbolic of the laager,’ John Nauright and Timothy Chandler enter the reservation that ‘such notions can be taken too far.’ Indeed they can. An inward-facing huddle of wagons, their occupants locked in some obscure struggle of their own, would have presented little problem to a marauding Zulu impi, unless that of throwing its assegais straight while doubled up with laughter. It is more plausible to take the scrum as the most explicit physical expression of the male bonding which Making Men sees at the heart of its subject. The opportunities which it gave for respectable touching (amplified by much mutual rubbing in of embrocation afterwards) may well have been – as Jock Phillips suggests writing of 19th-century New Zealand, but with a sidelong glance at the English public schools – a source of comforting closeness in a society where women were scarce or marginalised and the taboo against homosexuality was strong.’

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...

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