Sabre-Toothed Teacher

Colin Kidd

  • The Philosophy, Politics and Religion of British Democracy: Maurice Cowling and Conservatism edited by Robert Crowcroft, S.J.D. Green and Richard Whiting
    I.B. Tauris, 327 pp, £54.50, August 2010, ISBN 978 1 84511 976 8

Maurice Cowling was the English intelligentsia’s self-appointed pantomime ogre. Hamming up his villainy, he deliberately courted boos and hisses. In 1990, on the publication of the second edition of his book Mill and Liberalism (1963), he remembered with delight that one of its original reviewers had ‘obligingly’ described it as ‘“dangerous and unpleasant”, which was what it was intended to be’. By the same token, the first volume of his massive trilogy, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (1980-2001), begins by informing readers that the author’s mind is ‘narrow’, then proceeds to trace – in fond detail – the provenance of his Little England bigotry. There are further echoes of an Iago-like stage devil in Cowling’s encouragement of ‘irony, geniality and malice as solvents of enthusiasm, virtue and political elevation’. This Grand Guignol advertisement was typical of Cowling’s conservatism, though it was also combined with high seriousness, indirection and an obscurantist difficulty in both content and syntax.

Cowling first encountered Anglican reaction in a wartime Cambridge bereft of the university’s more progressive figures. At that stage Tory high churchmanship had its fenland redoubt in Corpus Christi College, but by the 1970s a noisier and more outlandish variant flourished a hundred yards or so to the south in Cambridge’s oldest college, Peterhouse. There, during his 30 years as a fellow, Cowling went some way towards turning a small, introverted community into a bastion of illiberal opinion.

Cowling’s brand of ultra-Toryism was well to the right of the Conservative Party and of practical politics. Mrs Thatcher had no time for him, telling him pointedly – and, I suspect, uncomprehendingly – that she didn’t want ‘pessimists’ in her party. He, on the other hand, was left cold by the desiccated political economy of Hayek and the classical liberal devotees of the free market. Indeed, his legion of enemies ranged all the way across the political spectrum. When Hugh Trevor-Roper – raised to the peerage as Lord Dacre on Thatcher’s recommendation – became master of Peterhouse in 1980, he was dismayed to find that what he had imagined to be a congenially conservative environment provided instead an ecological niche for a nest of ‘clerico-fascist’ vipers. (One member of Cowling’s Peterhouse caucus was said to sport a black armband on the anniversary of Franco’s death.) For much of the 1980s Cowling and Trevor-Roper would engage in a ‘long-running and increasingly public slanging-match’, which, as Jonathan Parry notes in The Philosophy, Politics and Religion of British Democracy, ‘both men found immensely life-enhancing’. If Cowling was not taken altogether seriously in the higher reaches of the Conservative Party, he was nevertheless influential as a Tory talent-spotter. His protégés – not all of them educated at Peterhouse – were to be found among the ranks of Conservative MPs and special advisers and in the Telegraph. The most famous of them is Michael Portillo, ironically the son of an émigré Spanish Republican, who found his way to the Conservative Party by way of Cowling’s teaching and patronage.

For all his success as a guru of the right, in strictly party political terms Cowling is a flamboyant footnote in modern British conservatism, who does not merit a dedicated collection of essays. He was also, however, a historian and political theorist of startling originality. Cowling believed that the academic treatment of politics was superficial, oblivious of its real inner dynamics. If politics was to be understood at all, it needed to be studied from inside the game being played, a game whose rules and conventions might reveal themselves only gradually by way of lengthy immersion in the private papers of the political elite. What seemed important when observed from the outside – the supposed great issues of the day, as well as the structural determinants of politics as studied by historians – was marginal to the largely autonomous machinations of political actors, while the tittle-tattle of the elite (both its passing trivialities and the concessions its members made to the acknowledged temperaments of their peers) turned out to have an inward tactical significance out of all proportion to its wider social irrelevance. To parse politics accurately required an understanding of the way the principal players in the political game – 50 or so figures, including press barons and senior civil servants – variously read and misread the fluid and changing ‘situational necessity’ in which they found themselves. The ‘abridgment’ of intractable narrative complexity into historical generalisation was anathema to Cowling; and political science – the term itself an unattainable absurdity – was so removed from political practice as to be worthless.

Cowling himself knew something of politics from the inside as a result of a frustrating – but, it seems, revelatory – decade in the wilderness. After he lost interest in his doctorate on mid 19th-century imperial policy in India, he left Cambridge and spent six months at the Foreign Office, managed a year as a Times leader writer before getting the sack, and had even briefer terms at the Express and the Telegraph. At a time when drunks and the terminally idle succeeded in carving out plausible careers on Fleet Street, it seems that Cowling’s reactionary mien and determination to maintain the Byzantine impenetrability of his prose already marked him out as rum and unbiddable. Naturally, this catalogue of failures did not preclude his adoption as the Conservative candidate to fight the Labour seat of Bassetlaw at the 1959 general election.

By the time the defeated Cowling returned to Cambridge he had picked up a bricoleur’s knowledge of various parapolitical trades; he already had an insight into imperial governance from his time as a soldier in India and Egypt in 1945-47. In particular, he had acquired several close friends from political journalism. Political gossip was the currency of his social life, and, in the eyes of critics, of his classic accounts of modern England’s accommodation (or supposed accommodation) with democracy: 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution (1967), The Impact of Labour, 1920-24 (1972) and The Impact of Hitler: British Politics and British Policy, 1933-40 (1975). Foreshadowing these was The Nature and Limits of Political Science (1963), in which Cowling set out his manifesto on how not to study politics. His attempts to apply his demanding theories to historical practice turned conventional interpretations inside out. The widening of the franchise had not transformed the political game. Indeed, the Second Reform Act in 1867 had been the outcome of traditional manoeuvring within an extended elite. Nor had the rise of the Labour movement changed the nature of high politics, which remained largely insulated from the real-life concerns of politics beyond the Westminster cocoon. Instead, Labour politicians had been absorbed into the existing system. Most disturbing of all to readers brought up on the conventional pieties of Britain’s finest hour, Cowling argued that principle and grand strategy had taken a back seat to domestic intrigue and factional advantage in the abandonment of Appeasement.

Cowling’s depiction of modern British politics seemed to re-create the sort of world that would have been familiar to Namier, but it would nevertheless be a mistake to pigeonhole him as a camp-following Namierite. There were striking similarities in the two men’s methods and themes, but also significant differences that bring into focus the lack of any genealogical connection between their approaches to history. Both favoured the methods of prosopography, or collective biography. Namier, however, was an anatomist, largely concerned to show how collective biography disclosed the structural underpinnings of politics; Cowling’s emphasis was on the interplay of individuals within a system, aiming ‘to present democratic politicians in a multi-dimensional context where they display on the fragmented nature of God’s handiwork the only rational way of acting politically’. Namier was firmly on the right, but his intellectual formation was indebted to the modernist assault on older orthodoxies, in particular to the insights of Freud and Vilfredo Pareto, who pioneered the sociological study of elites. Namier had been analysed in Vienna in the early 1920s by one of Freud’s pupils and went on to incorporate psychoanalytic insights into his pen portraits of 18th-century politicians. For Namier the insights of Freud and Marx unmasked the psychological quirks and material interests that lurked behind political rhetoric, or ‘flapdoodle’ as he called it. Cowling’s mentor, Herbert Butterfield, was Namier’s fiercest critic. In George III and the Historians (1957), Butterfield punctured Namierite reductiveness: ‘Human beings are the carriers of ideas as well as the repositories of vested interests.’ Although Cowling believed that students of politics should not be taken in by the smooth deceptions of political rhetoric, ideology was not a mere epiphenomenon of personality or economics, and remained central to his vision.

Indeed, he attempted – with less success – to forge a second historical revolution, this time in the study of ideas. Religion and Public Doctrine, which S.J.D. Green compares to Gibbon in its audacious, subversive sweep, yet also likens to a ‘bilious tour round a retired clergyman’s library’, seemed the antithesis of everything Cowling had stood for as a historian. Instead of setting ideas in a recognisable context, Cowling ignored the contours of actual debate and juxtaposed authors with little or no ideological or chronological connection. That might be the way most of us – magpie-like – assemble our ideas, but it imposes bizarre and unnecessary demands on the reader. In addition, he was reluctant to take his authors or their texts at face value. Liberals, he argued, failed to understand – and certainly failed to communicate – the quasi-religious arbitrariness of their own creed. Cowling contended that the ‘assumptions of enlightenment’ needed ‘as much to be buttressed in practice by force, fraud, consent and committed belief’ as did the ecclesiastical authority which liberalism had displaced. When traditional religious dogmas were overthrown, they were replaced not, as liberals seemed to imagine, by a tolerant and objective rationality but by ‘other assumptions’, and, hence, other forms of persuasion-cum-coercion. Liberalism, he argued, was a species of post-Christian religion, yet a religion incapable of recognising its true nature: ‘arrogance masquerading as altruism and dogmatic certainty disguised as open-mindedness’.

But was Cowling any more of a Christian believer than the secular intellectuals he sneered at? The evidence is inconclusive. Although as a young man he had considered ordination, the more the older Cowling obsessed over religion the less he seemed to be interested in Christianity as either transcendence or moral guide. Instead, like a plumber seeking the appropriate rod for unblocking a drain, he found ‘Christian Conservatism’ a fit ‘tool’ for his purpose: to expose ‘how rancid secular intelligentsias are capable of being’. After his departure from Cambridge in 1953 he had abandoned Anglican worship and he did not conform to conventional Christian expectations of deportment. His vernacular was earthy; he was gratuitously offensive to guests at high table; and, despite the positive response of many undergraduates to his sabre-toothed teaching methods, he was capricious and despotic in tutorials. He also had a long affair with the wife of the Tory journalist George Gale (Private Eye’s George G. Ale). Through Pat Gale, a Swansea girl (whom Cowling would eventually marry), and Kingsley Amis, who taught at Peterhouse in the early 1960s, Cowling had links with the boozy set fictionalised in Amis’s The Old Devils (1986). These two South Londoners, Amis, whose father was a clerk at Colman’s Mustard, and Cowling, the son of a technical assistant to a patent agent, had several common enmities that they prosecuted in a similar tone, although – on the page at least – in very different language. Criticism of liberal priggishness grew out of lower-middle-class resentment; and one wonders how far Cowling – after the fashion of Lucky Jim – attributed the false starts of the 1950s to upper-middle-class condescension.

Might that explain, in part, why Cowling was so much more affable with Marxists than with liberals? Consider his surprising indulgence of 1960s radicalism: ‘The present author has no skeletons in his cupboard, but he certainly said, and probably believed, in the late 1960s that, if the revolting students of the Student Revolution were revolting against Lord Beloff, Lord Annan and Sir Isaiah Berlin, there must have been something to be said in their favour.’ Yet there were skeletons in Cowling’s cupboard. Before the Suez furore aroused his contempt for liberal indignation, he had explored the possibility of a parliamentary career on the Labour benches. In fact, he was a self-confessed proponent of ‘Tory Marxism’, who endorsed its ‘cynical truth’ that ‘inequalities, sufferings and alienations’ were ‘vital concomitants of the freedom, discipline and social solidarity of modern societies’. Tory Marxism was an exquisite instrument of provocation. Nothing was more certain to trigger fear and loathing among his real class enemies – the liberal jellies of Hampstead – than the reactionary menace which inhered in the idea of class warfare waged from above.

But Tory Marxism need not be an oxymoron or a deliberately insensitive shorthand for right-wing negativity. If David Cameron’s idea of a Big Society amounts to more than a smokescreen disguising the cuts that will lead to a Small State, then it will owe much to the theories of the Anglo-Catholic theologian Phillip Blond, whose book Red Tory was published shortly before the election.[*] Blond blames left and right, permissiveness and market individualism, for the anomie of modern Britain. On the left another variant of Tory Marxism surfaced in the late work of the Marxist philosopher Gerry Cohen, who died in 2009. In a paper entitled ‘A Truth in Conservatism: Rescuing Conservatism from the Conservatives’, Cohen not only confessed to harbouring small-c conservative attitudes on several fronts – environmental, aesthetic and cultural – but also acknowledged the conservative charm of enduring particularity as a vital constituent of our humanity. He argued that ‘we deceive ourselves if we think that it is only because they deliver specifiable economic and social benefits that we cherish our local shops.’ Rather we value their uniqueness as part of the landscape to which we belong. Starbucks might well be better than the local café, but the market leads relentlessly towards the uniform satisfaction of general desires and therefore to the destruction of ‘both particular and personal value’. Cohen identified Thatcherism as a betrayal of true conservatism. So-called conservatives, he lamented, ‘blather on about warm beer and old maids cycling to church and then they hand Wal-Mart the keys to the kingdom’. Cowling intended Tory Marxism to be a toxic formula. Yet – rephrased without the taboo scare words to mean a happy conjunction of old right and old left – it seems destined to enjoy some circulation in our politics. Our battered proletariat has many potential allies among instinctive Tories – monarchists, Anglicans, members of the traditional professions, fellows of Peterhouse – who contemplate with horror the prospect that every kind of non-commercial institution or social relationship will, sooner rather than later, melt into air.

[*] Jonathan Raban wrote about Red Tory in the LRB of 22 April 2010.