At first sight, 1982 is not a promising year for anniversaries. Almost the only one is just approaching. The Home Office and the Foreign Office were both founded in 1782 – products of a short-lived Whig ministry. This earth-shaking event is to be celebrated by a series of lectures for each Office. I was invited to give a lecture and was then struck off when I revealed that I do not lecture from a script. Perhaps it was wise to eliminate me. No doubt I should not have been able to resist John Bright’s definition of British foreign policy as ‘a gigantic system of out-relief for the British aristocracy’. 1882 is even less fertile. All I can discover is that in 1882 Charles Bradlaugh, the atheist, administered the oath to himself in the House of Commons. But try the half-centuries and relief is at hand. On 4 June 1832 the great Reform Bill became law under the name of the Representation of the People Act – quite a misnomer, in fact: only a small minority of the British people possessed the vote even after the Reform Bill. It took just under a century for them to reach something like universal suffrage. Nevertheless, the Reform Bill started the process. To adapt Macaulay’s sentence about the Glorious Revolution of 1688, it was because we had the Reform Bill in 1832 that we did not have a revolution in the 20th century. Parliamentary democracy stemmed from the Reform Bill, though this was far from the intention of those who promoted it. Present-day radicals are often impatient with the House of Commons. I think they are wrong: the Constitution is the foundation of our liberties, particularly as constantly reformed. So God bless Lord Grey of the Reform Bill and the Whigs who reluctantly supported him.
To deliver the Romanes Lecture in Oxford is a legendary achievement. At least I thought so until a few months ago when I was invited to deliver one. Why me? Useless to speculate. More urgently, what on earth should I talk about? No original ideas simmered in my head. Hastily I ransacked my record. There I remarked something that had never occurred to me before. For fifty years I had been teaching history and writing books about it. All my books and all my lectures had been implicitly about war: from the Napoleonic Wars to the shadow of final war under which we now live. Surely over this half-century some conclusions had occurred to me. Not, I fear, until this moment. Desperately I sought for some startling generalisations. I have always regarded history as mainly an affair of dates and I wrote down as many dates of wars and battles as I could remember. Time was passing. The dread date of the Romanes Lecture was approaching. I shook all the dates in my head like whitebait in a fish basket and hoped for the best. And thus I found myself standing in the Sheldonian Theatre one February afternoon with a microphone as big as a hand-grenade slung round my neck. My impression is that the Sheldonian Theatre was rather full, but you can never tell the size of an audience when you are staring into it. I found my guidelines all right and very depressing they were. Our 20th-century wars started with faith in the deterrent and are likely to end with it. Those who worship the deterrent get nearer and nearer to using it. One day they will have to use it in order to prove that it exists and by using it will prove that it does not exist. The deterrent does not prevent war: it provokes war. Our present approach to war is not even over something concrete like oil. It is purely a conflict over political doctrines: a heresy hunt.
These conclusions seem to me obvious and have done so ever since I campaigned in the original CND more than twenty years ago. They seemed obvious to my audience in the Sheldonian Theatre, to judge from the volume of applause. Perhaps they were merely applauding a retired campaigner who was delivering his swan song. Perhaps the arguments over nuclear weapons are a dialogue of the deaf. Two formidable figures have recently announced their unshakable faith in nuclear armoury. Professor Michael Howard tells us in the columns of the Times that the peace of the world will be imperilled if we relinquish nuclear weapons. Field-Marshal Lord Carver, I hear, is writing a book preaching the same doctrine. These are authorities whom I much respect. It baffles me that two men of such intelligence cannot grasp the simple truth. The threat of nuclear war can be used to maintain the peace fifty times, a hundred times, a thousand times. The danger of their use remains as great as it was at the beginning. On one occasion there will be a slip, a misjudgment of the situation, and human civilisation will be destroyed.
There is some cheer on the other side. E.P. Thompson, leader of CND, has recently delivered his banned BBC lecture, ‘Beyond the Cold War’,[*] at Worcester City Guildhall with the approval of the city fathers. Evidently Worcester is a most enlightened city. Thompson is a powerful advocate of CND, now indeed of END, truly convincing. I am not so sure about his remedy. It seems to me unlikely that the mass-destruction lobby will be shaken if the youth of all the world gather in tents at Vienna next August. An unexpected voice may carry more weight. There has just appeared in the New York Review of Books an article emphasising the urgency of nuclear disarmament without delay. The writer is none other than George Kennan, the influential American diplomat who launched the policy of ‘containment’ and with it the Cold War some thirty years ago. If George Kennan has been converted to nuclear disarmament, perhaps something good is astir in the world after all.
The death of Peter Opie on 5 February should not pass without commemoration. He and his wife Iona were our leading authorities on nursery rhymes and nursery lore. The Oxford Nursery Rhyme Book [†] which they assembled has been my constant stand-by ever since it came out in 1955. With its 800 rhymes and 600 illustrations it gives equal pleasure to the adult reader and the infant listeners. The only problem it creates is – where do we go from here? I usually follow Opie with Lear, who again combines verse with pictures. Great fun for me, though I have a feeling that my audience hasn’t much idea what Lear is driving at. The same goes for Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, which are certainly well received. After all, a small boy being eaten by a lion is always welcome news. But I wonder what the audience make of
That instructive play
The Second Mrs Tanqueray,
or even ‘Go out and govern New South Wales’? On a more sophisticated level I commend The Poet’s Tongue, an anthology which Auden and John Garrett put together nearly fifty years ago. I suppose it has long been out of print. It should be resurrected if only for ‘The Everlasting Percy’ – in my opinion, the funniest poem in the English language. Ah no, I am wrong: the jokes being all about railways, the poem is now no doubt incomprehensible. Only nursery jokes are eternal. As my second childhood is approaching I had better take refuge with the Opies’ Nursery Rhyme Book. This is the right moment to express my gratitude to Peter and Iona Opie for the delight they have given me and every other sensible child in the country.
[*] The lecture is published by Merlin Press (22 January, 60p, 0 85036 286 5, 36 pp.).
[†] The Opies’ work is published by Oxford. The Classic Fairy Tales was issued in paperback by Paladin in 1980 (352 pp., £3.95, 0 586 083359). Also available in paperback are The Lore and Language of School Children (Paladin, 448 pp., £2.50, 1977, 0 586 083111) and The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes (Puffin, 224 pp., £1, 1970, 014 030200 X).