Sabre-Toothed Teacher

Colin Kidd

  • The Philosophy, Politics and Religion of British Democracy: Maurice Cowling and Conservatis 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.

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