Liking it and living it

Hugh Tulloch

  • Namier by Linda Colley
    Weidenfeld, 132 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 297 79587 2
  • Hume by Nicholas Phillipson
    Weidenfeld, 162 pp, £14.95, May 1989, ISBN 0 297 79592 9

In the Sixties J.H. Plumb euphorically announced the death of the ‘past’ – that comforting mythology conjured up to serve the present and make sense of things as they are – in the face of an advancing scholarship which was real ‘history’ and which depicted things as they actually were. The announcement was premature, and the distinction less clear-cut than Plumb assumed. Memory and the past weigh so heavily on each of us that their imaginary reassurances cannot be lightly disturbed, while the temptation for governments to appropriate and commandeer traditions for their own purposes is too tempting. The anniversaries of 1588, of 1688 and 1789 are constant reminders of this complicity of past and present, and the current celebration of ‘inevitable’ Thatcherism at the end of a rampantly ahistorical and whiggish decade, suggests that the historian, clustering as chronicler around the ascendant court, can also collaborate in the manufacture of fresh myths.

It is this struggle between ‘history’ and the ‘past’, of the historian within time striving for a perspective outside it, the desire to serve historical truth while tempted simultaneously to aid a present cause, which makes these two studies so fascinating and instructive. Entering the workshop of the historian’s mind, they are object lessons, brief moral tales, equally illuminating in charting their subjects’ partial successes and partial failures. Thus David Hume attacked the 18th-century myth of an ancient British constitution and warned his readers of the disastrous political consequences of ignoring their history. By reminding them of the recent emergence of constitutional government he wished to point to the late and precarious establishment of stable government, and with a Tory eye undermine the prevalent Whig concept of an earlier Gothic state of perfection which justified disruptive opposition in the less than perfect present. To prove this point, his History moved slowly backwards from 1688 to Julius Caesar much, as one unfriendly critic commented, like a witch saying her prayers back to front. Lewis Namier, in turn, demolished a 19th-century mythology which had grown up about mid-18th-century politics, but his revisionism was prompted by psychological as well as professional motives. Just as individual neurosis resulted from an arrested fixation in the memory, so, collectively, the pressure of history could exert a crippling hold which only the historian, as therapist, could break.

One of Linda Colley’s many triumphs is to encompass the immense complexity of Namier’s personality in such a brief space. Another is to tread with tact over many sensitive areas: the matter of academic anti-semitism and ostracism, Namier’s sometimes paranoid response, his snobbery, his lashing tongue, his capacity to bore colleagues to the point of petrifaction, and his high-handed disposal of academic patronage in the Fifties. Born in Polish Galicia in 1888, he settled in Britain in 1907 and remained for most of his life an alien and a misfit. He was plagued throughout by illness, insomnia and near-suicidal depression. His first marriage in 1917 seems to have been on the same scale of disaster as that other, more famous exile, T.S. Eliot, and to have led to a similar emotional wasteland. Clara left him in 1921, but not until her death in 1945 did he make a happier second marriage to Julia de Beausobre, who, after his death in 1960, wrote his biography. That book painfully records Namier’s psychological malaise: Professor Colley goes on to link the historian to his history, to suggest that Namier’s tortured mind illuminated bleaker areas that more sanguine colleagues left unprobed, and to show how his various subconscious concerns were to disappear only to resurface, transformed, in his 18th-century studies.

Most central of all was the search for security and identity. Here, like George III, Namier was the mollusc in search of his rock. Just as his parents had rejected their Judaism, so Lewis rejected their Christianity. Just as his father had disinherited him of Koszylowce, the family estate, so he worked ceaselessly for a Jewish national homeland. But, as an appendix on surviving family papers confirms, Koszylowce, pitched at the unhappy crossroads of empires, was overrun and devastated by two world wars: so he had, ultimately, to find a rooted habitation in the past. There, at least, was certitude: minute research yielded definitive answers; an exploration of the 18th-century landed aristocracy revealed a world of extraordinary stability, all the more tantalising because irretrievably lost. His faith in the possession of land and the noblesse it conferred on its owners was mystical, and what it bestowed was precisely what Namier lacked – ease and an unselfconscious assurance born of time and order. More practically, that élite displayed an amazing capacity to adapt and endure. His study of the 18th-century imperial question was to focus initially on the colonies’ successful revolt; it ended by intending to show how the ‘phoenix empire’ had survived the great smash of the American War of Independence. Even more practically, he found much to admire in the stabilising apparatus of patronage. Balliol had made him and he could always depend on the support of aristocratic admirers like Blanche Dugdale (A.J. Balfour’s niece) and Philip Kerr, Lord Lothian; and he was delighted to play Burke to Harold Macmillan’s Lord Rockingham.

Namier affected to despise all ideological ‘isms’ and A.J.P. Taylor spoke of his having taken the mind out of history. Professor Colley not only puts it back in but shows Namier’s thinking to be dominated by Marx and Freud. These towering influences, together with Vilfredo Pareto, Graham Wallas and Charles Beard, all served to undermine his faith in reason, and led him to search for deeper drives which underlay the rationalisations of doctrine. He was surely right to mistrust pure reason and be aware of the impure motives which gave it such potency: but was this suspicion perhaps taken to excess because grounded on his own introspective fears of unreason unexorcised? Did he display, that is, an unreasoning fear of reason? His wife, Julia, provides a clue when she recalls how irrationality in others always incapacitated her husband. Linda Colley provides another when she remarks that Namier relentlessly assaulted those academics, intellectuals and ideologues who made up the Frankfort parliament of 1848 because they were essentially doctrinaire mirror images of himself. And how saturated in emotion is his own ostensibly dry, dispassionate prose – his seminal distinction, for instance, between 19th-century territorial and linguistic nationalism: ‘On the European continent language rather than territorial tradition, the bond of the intellectuals rather than the heritage of rooted communities, became the basis of nationality; the age was formed by the intellectuals and the city populations, uprooted man in undiversified surroundings.’ It is as if he was appalled by the magic of words and the power it gave to those who could bend it to their own unscrupulous purpose; terrified, as a master of style himself, of letting such a lethal, combustible force out of his hands and loose on a credulous world.

Such sensitivity, together with his Jewishness and profound Germanophobia, gave him a unique early understanding of Hitler and the Nazi phenomenon. As an 18th-century scholar herself, Professor Colley understandably gives less space to Namier’s writings on inter-war diplomacy, but I suspect they had a far greater impact in the short run than his 18th-century history, which was written specifically for the specialist. His diplomatic journalism, brought together in three volumes between 1948 and 1952, was substantial and appeared in such papers as the Manchester Guardian, the Times and the TLS. Along with Churchill and Wheeler-Bennett, he forged a post-war historical consensus concerning the origins of the Second World War which has stubbornly held its ground. The suggestion is that Namier’s interpretation was spread by the far more prolific and popular writings of A.J.P. Taylor, but Taylor’s own claim that his Origins of the Second World War was essentially Namierite is surely disingenuous: Hugh Trevor-Roper suggests, on the contrary, that Namier would have been appalled had he lived to read that book. Taylor’s attempt to drain the narrative of its moral content, to depict Hitler as a traditional statesman in international affairs pursuing limited and conventional ends, and his portrayal of the ‘guilty men’ of British appeasement as honest men doing their unheroic best in an impossible situation, would have been anathema to him.

Namier may have helped to erect a fresh 20th-century myth, but in his Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930) he satisfyingly laid another to rest. The Whig interpretation, elaborated by Hallam, Lecky and G.O. Trevelyan, depicted George III as attempting to subvert the constitutional monarchy established in 1688, arbitrarily reasserting the royal prerogative and, by the lavish exercise of corruption, attacking the liberties of free-born Englishmen both at home (hence Wilkes) and abroad (hence the colonial revolution). Namier’s minute research showed that previous historians had swallowed the eloquent oppositional literature of Burke and others whole; that the King, far from wishing to revert to Stuart despotism, was an over-conscientious constitutional monarch; that those monolithic parties which the King was presumed to have subdued simply did not exist. Instead, transient ministries were cobbled together from constantly shifting coalitions to which crown patronage provided a much needed semblance of stability and continuity. These startling conclusions were reached by the innovatory method of prosopography – that is, by microscopically investigating each MP, where he came from, how he got into Parliament, stayed there and voted. This demolition of the Whig edifice was carried out with hammer and chisel rather than high explosive.

Professor Colley subjects these pioneering works, and Namier’s later joint editorship of the collaborative three-volume History of Parliament 1754-1790, to careful scrutiny and points to their various limitations: their static quality (‘I suffer from a very imperfect sense of time,’ he disarmingly admitted); the obsession with neurotic failures, such as Charles Townshend, which leaves the impression that the American colonies were somehow lost as a result of unresolved oedipal complexes; the questionable assumption that Parliament was a perfect microcosm of the nation. A reading of Nicholas Phillipson’s skilful and lucid study of David Hume serves to enlarge our sense of these limitations. Needless to say, there is no mention of Hume in Namier’s indexes, though he would have found congenial his 18th-century counterpart’s sceptical conservatism, his no-nonsense empiricism, and his insistence on the prerequisite of civilised discourse. But Hume’s deeply unneurotic nature and studied serenity – that finest flowering of the Scottish Enlightenment – would have held less appeal. After completing his six-volume History of Great Britain in 1762 he declared himself too old, fat, lazy and rich to write any more, while Namier agonised to the end over his unwritten introduction to the History of Parliament. Phillipson opens up windows into an extra-Parliamentary world vitalised by new, urban middle-class life, letting in air and light. His wider vision extends beyond Westminster and a limited electorate to a seething and literate citizenship educated in the new forms of civilising commerce, and the dictates of polite behaviour, by pamphlets, broadsheets, ballads and newspapers. These had proliferated in the capital and the provinces with the lapsing of the Licensing Act of 1695, and a new breed of journalists like Defoe, Bolingbroke, Addison and Steele emerged to meet the demand.

What they reveal is the dogged persistence of Whig and Tory tags, a vociferous ideological debate which Hume’s History was specifically intended to mitigate and which Namier ignores. Ironically, Hume would have wished for a stable Namierite 18th century because, living through that age of persisting disruptive factionalism and excessive enthusiasm, he was acutely aware of the absence of such a thing. Likewise he desired a more absolute monarchy to contain endemic party conflict – a role Namier’s George III was ill-fitted to play. Also, as philosopher, Hume addressed himself to fundamental questions of political legitimacy, obedience and consent which Namier dismissed as abstractions but which would have helped to explain the puzzle of Britain’s astonishingly smooth transition from first to second empire, and the long, inexplicable reign of the mediocre Duke of Newcastle, in terms other than mere cash and a bought electorate. In ‘The First Principles of Government’, for example, Hume writes: ‘Nothing appears more surprising, to those who consider human affairs with a philosophical eye, than the easiness with which the many are governed by the few, and the implicit submission with which men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is effected, we shall find that, as force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. It is therefore on opinion only that government is founded; and this maxim extends to the most despotic and most military governments, as well as to the most free and most popular.’

Like Namier, Hume appreciated that public opinion could be turbulent, foolish and destructive, and that reason was the slave of passion and self-interest, but instead of dismissing it, he sought instead to tame it and domesticate it by a renovation of manners. History was to help house-train. Increasingly, after his early, dazzling philosophical works of the 1740s he turned his attention from a study of the mind to the study of the state, bringing his deep theoretical understanding to bear on public life. Here his corrosive scepticism challenged that vast structure of abstract fabrications – original contract, the state of nature, miracles – which, however insubstantial, had real and painful consequences in that men fought and died for them. His pagan indictment of religion again looked to the practical consequences: Christian dogma may be a fiction, but it was more important that it made people rabid and miserable in the service of an implacable God, and destabilised society through sectarian warfare. History exemplified the moral. Henry VIII dismantled the ancient religion and Elizabeth I prudently reached a via media which avoided the ferocious religious wars of France and Scotland. James I foolishly drew religion back into statecraft and Charles I so intensified the problem that a civil war of religion and a breakdown in political obedience occurred in the 17th century. The History was hugely popular in its own time and held sway till replaced by Macaulay, but it ought, perhaps, to be a tract for all times.

Hume’s History has been unjustly neglected at the expense of his philosophy. Phillipson’s study should help to readjust the balance. Namier continues to exert a powerful influence on the historical school of ‘high politics’ which, adopting the master’s flaws, tends to underplay Hume’s ‘opinion’, to concentrate on a closed Parliamentary world and, more insidiously, to raise to a high pitch of professionalism a fresh intellectual assault on liberalism and intellectualism.