Mere Party

Robert Stewart

  • Pillars of Government, and Other Essays on State and Society c.1770-c.1880 by Norman Gash
    Arnold, 202 pp, £25.00, June 1986, ISBN 0 7131 6463 8
  • Sir Robert Peel: The Life of Sir Robert Peel after 1830 by Norman Gash
    Longman, 745 pp, £12.50, July 1986, ISBN 0 582 49722 1

A new publication by Norman Gash is cause for excitement. His stature among living 19th-century English historians is rivalled only by that of Eric Hobsbawm, and since the two men’s writings have little in common except an elegantly plain and direct prose, Clio herself would find it difficult to award the palm to one or the other. Hobsbawm is the most erudite, scrupulous and broad-visioned of the social and economic historians who have done much in the last thirty years to uncover the long-neglected lower depths of popular history; Gash has seldom, and never at length, strayed from the more ancient high road of Parliamentary and constitutional history.

Some would call Gash a Tory historian. Much of his writing has been devoted to the Tory Party and all of it, from his very first book, Politics in the Age of Peel, the introduction to which contained a stout, if somewhat question-begging defence of the Tory case against Parliamentary Reform in 1831-32, has been imbued with a sentiment in favour of the executive. He has chosen to write biographies of two Tory prime ministers, Peel and Liverpool, whose administrative finesse and skill in the practical exercise of power are the qualities which most consistently elicit his admiration. When Gash writes of Peel, in this new collection, that he regarded party as an adjunct of politics because, possessing administrative instincts, he was interested ‘not so much in the pursuit as in the use of power’, we feel that he is writing of a man after his own devices and that he is not simply describing Peel, but congratulating him. Though he remarks that ‘Peel’s habit of qualifying the word ‘party’ by the adjective ‘mere’ was not an endearing trait, Gash himself gives party less prominence, both before and after 1832, than most historians in the field would now accord it. That he prefers to find evidence of party in the mechanics of organisation and distrusts, as evidence, the sharing of ideas and aspirations, is in itself, perhaps, an indication of a Tory cast of mind.

It would, of course, be entirely wrong to regard Gash, Tory or not, as a narrow historian. His notions of history-writing may not accommodate the wilder ambitions of Whigs like John Morley, who said that ‘the history of England ought to end with something that might be called a moral,’ or Professor Seeley, whose Expansion of England, invigorating though it is, gave ample proof that he really believed that ‘history fades into mere literature when it loses sight of its relation to practical politics.’ But nor does he for a moment exhibit (as Namier sometimes did) any hankering after the nonsense that history is just one damn thing after another. At heart Gash is, and has always been, a constitutional historian, and a constitutional historian of the best kind, one who places institutional developments in the hurly-burly of political life, where the most far-reaching intentions are defeated by events and the most unpretending of actions come to issue in lasting consequences. Like all historians, but constitutional historians above all, he wants to unravel the threads of how we got here from there. What he does not indulge in (unlike some contemporary social historians) is telling us how we ought to have got here or using history to tell us what our present moral stance should be. This is not a failure of the imagination. On the contrary, it is Gash’s historical imagination, seeped in the past, fed by his delight in facts, and controlled by a charitable and humane regard for the vagaries of human behaviour, that has enabled him to transmute his prodigious learning by the power of thought and analytical skill into such fertile masterpieces of modern historical literature as his Ford Lectures (published as Reaction and Reconstruction in English Politics, 1832-1852), in fluency and subtlety the equal at least of those other celebrated Ford Lectures, Richard Pares’s King George III and the Politicians.

Professor Gash has yet to be honoured by a festschrift. But Edward Arnold have done him proud and served readers better by inviting him to publish this collection of pieces old and new, 15 essays and articles in all, of which seven have not previously been published, one is revised and enlarged (the ground-breaking article on the Conservative election agent, F.R. Bonham, which appeared in 1948, when scarcely anything had been written about post-1832 party organisation), and the remainder are not readily accessible elsewhere. One or two of the pieces are slight, having been originally prepared for audiences who could not be expected to have an interest in the finer points of historians’ debates. The brief account of the three great 19th-century Parliamentary Reform acts and the survey of the Anglican Church in the first half of the century, papers read in Coburg to the Prince Albert Society, fall into this category. Not that Gash talks down to laymen. His address to the Peel Society in Tamworth in 1984 on ‘The Historical Significance of the Tamworth Manifesto’ (the manifesto was Peel’s open letter to his constituents in 1834) is a definitive assessment of the document’s importance, establishing it both as a constitutional landmark in party politics and as a unique event, the latter, in language characteristic of Gash, for the simple reason that ‘the circumstances of 1834 never recurred.’ Most of the articles are more purely scholarly, bringing to light new evidence or arguing freshly about old evidence, and it is a pity, since the selection of previously published material is based on accessibility, that space has not been found for two recent articles on the organisation of the Conservative Party published in Parliamentary History, a journal which has failed, so far as I know, to make its way into many libraries.

A difficulty which arises from republishing old material is that historical research and interpretation have moved on in the meantime. In the essay ‘Some Reflections on History’, Gash sensibly dismisses as nonsense the frequently-heard platitude that ‘each generation has to reinterpret the past.’ (There is no such thing as a generation of historians, and, if there were, it could not be compelled to do anything.) He is alive, however, to the necessity of keeping abreast of what other historians are doing and saying, and it may be that he would not now give some of the remarks on ‘The English Constitution in the Age of the American Revolution’, delivered as Hinkley Professor of English History at Johns Hopkins University in 1962, so neo-Namierite an emphasis or tone. The view that the independent country gentlemen were ‘the most important single body of men’ in the House of Commons in the 18th century, the view, also, that party was absent, and a notion of no constitutional use, until the closing decades of the century, are a little old-fashioned. They may be correct, but they require sturdier defence now than they did twenty-five years ago. The essay shows its age, too, in giving the impression that the Hanoverian constitution was the same thing in 1742 and 1761 and 1784. This may, it is only fair to say, be a consequence of Gash’s concern, in a brief talk, to convey the essential ingredients of the subject to an American audience. That he did brilliantly well. Nowhere else will readers find, in so short a space, a summary of the framework of Hanoverian government more learned, or more clear in its exposition of the mighty sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament subdued by the day-to-day restraints exerted by King, Lords and Commons upon each other, diluted by the peculiar workings of English local government and the English judiciary, and enfeebled by the laisser-faire assumption of the age that every citizen, in Paley’s words, was entitled to go about his daily business free from ‘inspection, scrutiny, and control’.

Whether recent research has altered Gash’s view of Hanoverian politics, there is no reason to suppose that his admiration of Peel has diminished. It is scarcely possible to quarrel with his judgment that Peel was ‘The Founder of Modern Conservatism’ – the title to an essay of 1970 reprinted here from the short-lived magazine, Solon. And it is handy to have this summing-up of his favourite politician in a few thousand words. Few men know as much about anything as Gash knows about Peel. But not everyone is willing to make him out a saint. Gash’s portrait of Peel as a dutiful public servant moved by argument and facts and infinitely adjustable to the claims of political reality – ‘a politician with reserves of statesmanlike resilience’ – has some evidence to sustain it: but it needs to be considered against a quite different likeness which Boyd Hilton, for example, has recently painted (‘Peel: A Reappraisal’, Historical Journal, 1979). Gash has produced a finished canvas in oils and Boyd Hilton only a preliminary sketch. Even so, Gash has never quite caught his sitter’s stubborn obstinacy: Peel’s resilience and ‘statesmanship’, on the critical questions of Catholic emancipation, Parliamentary Reform and free trade, revealed themselves only at the last minute.

At any rate, it is not so much a question of whether Gash gets Peel quite right – thanks to his magisterial biography, the second volume of which has at long last appeared in paperback, we have a better notion of Peel, a complicated and reserved man difficult to decipher, than we have of any other 19th-century prime minister – as of whether his championship of him unsettles his judgment on other matters. It is right to draw attention to the series of speeches in which Peel attempted to woo the urban well-to-do to Conservatism in the late 1830s, but the election returns do not bear out the contention that the attempt succeeded, that ‘middle-class brains and middle-class votes were essential ingredients in the great Conservative victory of 1841.’ Peel’s difficulty over the repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 stemmed in large measure from the fact that the Conservative majority elected in 1841 came overwhelmingly from the English shires and the small, ‘rural’ boroughs. Gash’s admiration of Peel also disposes him to underrate the achievements of Lord John Russell and the Whigs. While Peel was allowing his party to feed on anti-Catholic, anti-Irish scaremongering, the Whigs were earning the approval of Irish Catholics and English Dissenters alike for the steady progress they were making in office from 1835 to 1841, towards a more tolerant and pluralist society. According to Gash, as to Kitson Clark before him, Peel was ‘more than any one man ... responsible for rescuing the Church of England in the years of its greatest weakness and unpopularity’; the evidence is stronger for John Prest’s assertion, in his biography of Russell, that, by their legislation to weaken the Anglican ascendancy in Ireland and extend the civil liberties of Dissenters in England, ‘the Whigs had saved the Church from the Radicals, and the Radicals knew it.’ As for the repeal of the Corn Laws (as much a Whig act as a Peelite one), Gash writes as if the coming of the ‘age of equipoise’ had nothing to do with Parliamentary Reform acts and ten hours acts (which the Peelites opposed): ‘The pent-up social, class, and even religious passions of his generation were released in one dramatic climax.’

Even that sentence, strangely overblown as it is, derives from one of Gash’s most endearing strengths, his refusal to clutter his prose with apologies. Not for him the superfluous ‘in my opinion’ and its ungainly cousin, ‘arguably’; not for him, either, wearying reminders of the paucity or ambiguity of the sources. His opinions are forthright and his sentences are often delicious: ‘ “Patriotism” was not so much the last refuge of a scoundrel as the uniform of an office-seeker.’ He is terse, too, on popular biographies: ‘They provide entertainment for the mind’s eye but not for the mind’s brain.’ Gash does not mince words, yet he is almost unfailingly judicious and courteous. He does not despise popular biographers: indeed, he recommends that professional historians study their handling of narrative and character. He simply distinguishes the purpose and properties of popular biographies from those written by trained historians. ‘A Modern Defence of Historical Biography’ is both a welcome riposte to those people who would parcel out the several kinds of things that historians do and call some of them ‘history’, some not, and a persuasive case for the dignity and usefulness of political biography. Dealing with individuals helps to safeguard a historian from falling into a world of ‘movements’, ‘classes’, ‘cultures’, ‘parties’ and other abstractions. It keeps him in touch with historical reality. Writing biography also forces him to pursue his subject’s fancies, not his own, so that he travels down roads which he would otherwise pass by. ‘The untidiness of life should be reflected in the heterogeneity of an historian’s knowledge; he can hardly have too much miscellaneous information.’ Salutary for those who write it, biography, what is more important, makes an essential contribution to historical literature itself. Gash’s last word on the subject is unanswerable. ‘We have only to reflect on the state of history without biography to realise how much it would be impoverished.’

This collection provides two small examples of the point. One, an essay on the Glaswegian criminologist, Patrick Colquhoun, rescues a man of importance from near-oblivion and his ideas from misrepresentation. It will not be surprising if it leads to a burgeoning of scholarly interest in his opinions and their influence: for the moment it enriches our understanding of the 18th-century debate on the proper scope of government in a libertarian society and extends our knowledge of the social and intellectual roots of Utilitarianism. The other, a damning portrait of Lord George Bentinck, the backbencher who reared so violently and so unexpectedly against Peel and free trade in 1846, as a racing scamp who carried the uncouth arrogance and money-grabbing ethics of his turf life into the House of Commons and thereby ‘imported into the arts of parliamentary leadership a new and degrading element’, leads one to ponder the extent to which one man’s personal gift for unpleasantness can alter the course of party politics. I, for one, shall never again look upon the Conservative split and its aftermath in quite the same way.