Duels in the Dark

Colin Kidd

  • Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier by D.W. Hayton
    Manchester, 472 pp, £25.00, August, ISBN 978 0 7190 8603 8

In 1951, at the height of his celebrity and a year before he received his knighthood, the historian Lewis Bernstein Namier was sufficiently well known to appear – only lightly caricatured – in Cyril Hare’s An English Murder. The events of the story take place in a country house whose archive has attracted the attention of Dr Wenceslaus Bottwink, a Central European Jew and expert on the high politics of the reign of George III. In the course of his researches on certain ‘confidential letters’ written by Lord Bute in the early 1760s, Bottwink also manages to solve a murder. However, far from being the novel’s hero, the Namier figure is, in accordance with the reputation of his original, a crashing bore, dominating the breakfast table with the minutiae of his research. ‘Once let this fellow start talking, there was no stopping him,’ another character laments.

Although Namier’s notoriety now seems all too vividly flecked with the antisemitism that did much to hold back his career, there was also the sense that his elephantine obsessions were with mouse-scale subject matter: the personal interests of MPs in the first few years after the accession of George III. Namier was accused by some fellow historians – among them his one-time protégé A.J.P. Taylor – of taking the mind out of history: trampling on ideas, principles and beliefs until they were indistinguishable from crude self-interest.

Yet Namier was, arguably, the 20th century’s most original historian. His work on England in the third quarter of the 18th century – there were two masterpieces, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III (1929) and England in the Age of the American Revolution (1930) – shattered the historical consensus on the nature of the political party, the role of George III and the development of the British constitution. Namier cursorily rejected accepted elements of historial exposition that had no explanatory power. What was party principle, he asked, but the cant of politicians, whose real motivations derived from self-interest and connection? He also downplayed the efficacy of purpose in politics, emphasising instead the ‘deeper irrelevancies and incoherence of human actions’. Our supposed saga of constitutional progress, he argued, comprised a series of comedies of unintention: ‘duels in the dark’. ‘When watched at close quarters’, actions were in no way ‘correlated … to the results they produce’.

Namier’s impact was not confined to his own historiographical patch. He profoundly changed – at least for a time – what constituted best practice in research and exposition. Where once it had seemed obvious that the historian’s primary job was to narrate change over time, Namier investigated the political elite at a particular moment. By contrast with the dauntingly prosopographical analysis of Namier and his disciples, narrative as previously understood seemed quaintly impressionistic, yielding only a superficial understanding of past politics.

Namier was born Ludwik Bernstein in 1888 in the Russian portion of partitioned Poland, and was brought up there and in the Austrian province of Galicia (now western Ukraine). He belonged to a family of Polonised Jewish landowners, and as his new biographer David Hayton notes, was uncircumcised. The family had been called Niemirowski, but this surname was dropped as part of the enforced Germanisation of Jewish surnames in the later 18th century. His parents classed themselves as Roman Catholics, though organised religion – in any form – was absent from family life. From his youth Namier was allergic to priestcraft, whether Catholic or rabbinical, though he was also contemptuous of assimilated Jewry. He used to describe his fellow Jews as ‘co-racials’.

The adolescent Namier was infatuated with socialism and pan-Slavism (rejecting the liberal nationalism of his father), as well as with prehistoric archaeology, Dostoevsky’s novels and Marie Beer, an assimilated Austrian Jewish friend of his sister who would much later become his lover in England. His university education came in fits and starts, at Lemberg, Lausanne, the LSE, and eventually Balliol College, Oxford. At Lausanne, one of his lecturers was Vilfredo Pareto, whose work focused on the sociology of elites, but Hayton cautions against reading too much into this. More immediately influential were the geographical interpretation of politics pioneered by Halford Mackinder, the director of the LSE, with its emphasis on the determining role of the East European ‘heartland’ in the geopolitics of the Eurasian landmass (later reflected in Namier’s diplomatic career), and the quizzical anthropology of Edvard Westermarck, also of the LSE, which probed the relationship between reason and morality, and finds a faint echo in Namier’s fascination with the collective and the irrational. Freudianism was another major influence, imbibed by way of Freud’s disciple Theodor Reik, whom Namier met in Vienna in the 1920s. Reik told him that psychoanalysis could cure his insomnia. We shouldn’t overplay the intellectual pedigree of Namier’s ideas, however. When at Balliol between 1908 and 1911 he fell in love with the stolid, pragmatic instincts of the British governing class and the empire over which it ruled, despite the antisemitism which prevailed in both. In 1910 he changed his surname from Bernstein to Namier, and in 1913 became a British subject.

But Oxford wasn’t willing to make him a don, so Namier launched himself in the United States, where he was employed by the businessman Louis Hammerling. The nature of Namier’s work remains unclear – possibly clerking in a mail order house, possibly syndicated journalism – but it gave him enough free time to make trips from New York to Yale, where he made contact with Charles M. Andrews, the leading light in the school of historians that saw the American Revolution as a problem of British imperial governance. At the heart of Namier’s historical project was a geopolitical problem: the loss of the American colonies as seen from an English perspective.

In 1914 Namier returned to Britain, intending to write a book on English politics in the age of the American Revolution, and hoping to find a steadier career in the law. The First World War intervened, and he enlisted in the army. In February 1915 he was deployed to civilian propaganda work, based first at the War Propaganda Bureau and then at the Intelligence Bureau within the Department of Information, which was later transferred – Namier included – to the Foreign Office, to serve as its Intelligence Department. In this period Namier enjoyed considerable influence as a capriciously Slavophile, anti-Polish, Germanophobe expert in the confused ethnic politics of his homeland. He was a prolific analyst and polemicist, with a ‘journalistic verve’, his prose rich in ‘striking metaphors and memorable aphorisms’, even though, as Hayton reminds us, he was operating in what was probably his fifth language. He soon came to the notice of Philip Kerr, Lloyd George’s private secretary, and subsequently to that of the prime minister himself. Pointed questions were asked in Parliament about his anti-Polish sentiments, and a poisonous piece in G.K. Chesterton’s weekly magazine New Witness outed the shifty cosmopolitan Jews Bernstein (Namier) and Braunstein (Trotsky), both of whom had changed their names in furtherance of the destruction of their countries. Some of those who championed him were aware of the fickleness and acerbity which accompanied Namier’s seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the politics of Mitteleuropa, but he succeeded in making several significant friendships with members of the British elite, including the Tory politicians Bob Boothby, Walter Elliot and Harold Macmillan (later his publisher). The most important of these connections, as Hayton shows, was with Blanche Dugdale, known to her friends as ‘Baffy’. She was the niece of the former prime minister Arthur Balfour, the wife of Edgar Dugdale (who first translated Mein Kampf) and, significantly, a committed Zionist. Although Namier would devote considerable time and energy to Zionist causes, this was a passion he acquired only in middle age. His preferred solution owed much to his Tory snobberies: a Zionist homeland within the benign embrace of the British Empire.

In the course of the war Namier married the Polish-Russian Clara Poniatowska, a clerk with the Russian government committee in London. He had begun a sexual relationship with her on the assumption that she was married. She was, in fact, a widow, and told Namier that she wished to remarry. He consented, though the marriage did not endure. He left the Foreign Office in 1920 in high dudgeon over what he saw as its tilt towards Poland in its efforts to absorb Namier’s homeland of eastern Galicia. (Namier was adamant that the Poles had no legitimate claim to lands which were not, by his obsessive lights, ethnically Polish.) The following decade was distinguished by marital failure, piecework of various sorts for Balliol and newspapers, applications for grants and subventions – and progress on his great historical work.

The publication of his books on Georgian politics (in 1929 and 1930) rapidly established Namier’s reputation as a genius, but still wasn’t enough to earn him a post at Oxford. He was already known as a leviathan bore who might cast a shadow over any senior common room. In 1931 a chair in history was found for him at Manchester, though even there – an institution which, since the tenure of T.F. Tout, a pioneer in administrative history, had housed arguably England’s most technically advanced history department – Namier was far from first choice. His energies were in future to be split between several channels: his teaching at Manchester during the week, weekends in London, trips to country houses to ferret out 18th-century archival materials, work for Zionist and Jewish relief agencies, and an interest in the emergence of European nationalisms in the 19th century and their consequences for modern diplomacy. Hayton reminds us that Namier’s contemporary stature as a historian derived not only from his microscopic studies of 18th-century English politics but from his telescopic surveys of developments in modern European politics between the 1848 revolutions and the Nazi era. Although Namier dismissed the political thought of George III as ‘flapdoodle’, he was a keen student – in a different context – of liberal and nationalist ideas. While he was scathing about the disproportionate attention historians gave to ideas when these could not explain political action, this was not, according to Hayton, a universal proscription. In some cases ideas did indeed determine the course of politics.

Namier’s efforts on behalf of Zionist causes did not preclude friendships with Arabists, or prevent his backing some kind of arrangement with the Arabs. He was very close to T.E. Lawrence, whose death in 1935 was a devastating blow; and in 1939 he entered into intrigues with Kim Philby’s father, an adviser to the Saudi king. During the Second World War – at the start of which he procured a lethal dose of veronal in case of a Nazi invasion – Namier served in London as a link between the Jewish Agency and the government. ‘I knew and mistrusted Dr L.B. Namier 21 years ago,’ Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, complained. ‘He is a fanatical Hebrew. His views on Poles are largely dictated by whether or not they are in his opinion friendly to Jews.’

During the 1920s Namier had separated from his first wife, Clara, but didn’t divorce her. In 1927 he made arrangements for his first love, Marie Beer, to come to Britain, though they lived separately. Eventually she became ill and in 1939 was committed to a mental asylum; Namier was a regular visitor until her death in 1954. Clara, who lived latterly with A.J.P. Taylor and his wife, died in 1945, which gave Namier the freedom to marry Julia de Beausobre, a Russian of aristocratic hauteur, whom he had met in 1942. Julia was devoutly Orthodox and insisted that Namier had to be baptised if they were to marry. He chose the Church of England as the easiest option, and was admitted in 1947. As a result he was cold-shouldered by former comrades in the Zionist movement. A rupture with the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann followed, including an unsavoury scene at the Athenaeum (Weizmann’s hostile scowl reduced Namier to ‘tears of rage’). In the meantime, Julia chivvied Namier into ending sexual relationships with two other women, which had continued long after he met her.

In 1947 Namier was passed over for the regius chair at Oxford, a final rebuff. He spent his remaining years in London at the History of Parliament Trust, behind whose postwar revival he was a prime mover. Its publications proceeded glacially; Namier’s own, completed by a collaborator, appeared after his death in 1960. These massive tombs of prosopographical erudition were to the taste neither of the parliamentarians who provided the funding, nor of a new generation of historians who had long since deserted Namier’s terrain.

Until now the standard version of Namier’s life was the biography by his widow, whose inclinations were mystical rather than historiographical. Hayton’s is triumphantly comprehensive, unobtrusively weaving high politics with historiography, the life of the mind (and its whimsies) with the body: Namier’s minor obsession with graphology, his years in psychoanalysis, the botched sinus operation of his adolescence, his writer’s cramp, his insomnia.

As far as practising historians are concerned, Namier’s legacy has shrivelled. The main assaults on his achievement came half a century ago, from Herbert Butterfield – a different kind of anti-Whig historian – in George III and the Historians (1957), and from John Brewer, whose pioneering attempt to reconstruct the wider political culture of print, public opinion and street theatre in Namier’s home decade of the 1760s was tellingly entitled Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III (1976). Another forty years on, the revolution in social history has passed Namier by. Yet he does retain a relevance for us today. He bequeathed a way of looking at the world: his fundamental insight was that beneath the topsoil of principle – or proclaimed principle – in any political culture there lies a substratum of self-interest. In time Brexit will have its Namier.