Mr. Paul Johnson, British historian and journalist who will be speaking at "The Achievements of Democratic Capitalism, conference.. July 09, 1989. (Photo by Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

The conversion of Paul

The political journey of Paul Johnson, who renounced his socialist ideals to become a standard-bearer of the Right


This article is taken from the April 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

My father always lived dangerously. His first memory, aged three, was of “the anxious, terrified face of my mother” as she coaxed him down from a high wall onto which he had climbed. “Little Paul” was a late child; Nana had lost one child in infancy and was not going to lose him too. 

Later he recalled an incident at the railway station when he was rescued from falling under a train. Amid the hullabaloo, the stationmaster was summoned, top hat and all. “My mother was no fool,” he recalled. She chided her son: “You have a disconcerting habit of drawing attention to yourself.” Nine decades and millions of words later, it is clear Nana was right. Paul Johnson’s ability to hold the attention of his readers for long enough to infect them with his passions and enthusiasms was indeed disconcerting. In fact, it was a kind of genius.

In his most personal book, The Vanished Landscape: A 1930s Childhood in the Potteries, he confessed that “I always found school a worrying place; indeed, I find life a worrying state.” He never doubted that his soul was in peril, and probably Western civilisation too. 

As editor of the New Statesman, he took what was then perhaps the world’s leading political weekly to greater heights than ever before or since. His first major work, The Offshore Islanders, anticipated the British disillusionment with Europe by several decades: in him, Brexit found its prophet. He fought hard to save the Labour Party from union militancy and when that failed, he threw his weight behind Margaret Thatcher, heralding a seismic shift in British politics. A year in America in 1980 enabled him to do the same for Ronald Reagan: his Modern Times provided the historical rationale for the transatlantic revolution that culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall and victory in the Cold War. 

Meanwhile he was producing a series of books as vast in scope and original in spirit as they were popular with the public: from the rise of Judaeo-Christian civilisation to the history of the English-speaking peoples, from the ancient world to the birth of the modern. His Intellectuals foreshadowed later pathologies of academia, just as his History of Art turned the tables on the artistic establishment.

Yet in Britain, my father is probably best remembered for his rejection of the Left in the mid-1970s — an intellectual shift that was also a turning point in the politics of the period. As one of the key episodes in a decade of high drama, it would indeed lend itself to dramatic treatment. 

By instinct, my father belonged in the vanguard rather than among reactionaries. When the Conservatives betrayed the principles he had admired in Mrs Thatcher, he put his faith in New Labour. He was never a Tory, but a classical liberal mugged by reality, who saw his mission as the preservation of life, liberty and the best of the past in a fallen world. 

In a conversation about his life and times on Times Radio with Mariella Frostrup and me, Charles Moore compared him to the great Victorian men of letters giving thunderous speeches in Westminster in their top hats and frock coats. Charles was not wrong and my father certainly admired such figures. He had grown up at a time when the cult of Gladstone was still strong, especially in the North, and we children were urged to emulate the Grand Old Man’s habit of chewing every mouthful 32 times. An alarming caricature hung in the loo: “Mr Gladstone indignant.” That struck a chord.

As a young man, however, he had rebelled violently against eminent Victorians and anything that smacked of restoration and reaction. At one of the quizzes with which he enlivened Sunday lunches, I remember him asking: “Who was the greatest benefactor of humanity in history?” I answered triumphantly: “Jesus Christ!” “No, the Son of God doesn’t count.” His Catholic orthodoxy on this point may have been open to question; the answer he was looking for was John Maynard Keynes. 

Keynes had hugely impressed the post-war generation of Labour-supporting intellectuals, among whom my father was perhaps the brightest luminary. Keynesian economics promised to banish the pre-war nightmare of class war, strikes and slumps. The welfare state appeared to have tamed capitalism and might even one day kill it with kindness. Conservatives, too, seemingly subscribed to the Keynesian consensus, especially after imperial nostalgia had been buried in the aftermath of the ill-fated Anglo-French invasion of Suez in 1956.

My father had made his name with a short book on the subject: The Suez Crisis appeared (with a preface by Nye Bevan) days after the withdrawal. It exposed the deception on which Anthony Eden had relied: that there had been no collusion between Britain, France and Israel. A friend at the Foreign Office had (illegally) shown him classified documents which confirmed his suspicion that the Prime Minister had lied to the Commons. Within a few weeks, Eden had resigned. His successor, Harold Macmillan, was the last Victorian to occupy 10 Downing Street. My father gave him no quarter, either. 

In 1960, when I was three, we moved from a flat in Chelsea to a house in the Buckinghamshire village of Iver, initially with no car, no central heating and not much money. But my parents’ allegiance to the Left was certainly exciting for small boys. One of my earliest memories is of coming down in the morning to find several huge, hairy but impeccably polite young men draped over every spare bed and sofa in the house, including our nursery. It turned out they were marchers from one of the “Ban the Bomb” protests, who had come to stay the night. 

Impressed though I was by these giant peaceniks, I continued to build models of every tank, aircraft and warship I could afford with my pocket money. My father — he had done his National Service safely in Gibraltar — approved of my martial tendencies and would inspect my forces from time to time. 

In 1964, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was meant to be the embodiment of modernity, meritocracy and even morality. More than ever before, the bright young people leaned Left and the slogan “13 wasted years” [of Tory government] resonated with them. As editor of the New Statesman from 1965 to 1970, my father was in a key position to influence the battle of ideas. 

Like others, he invested absurdly high expectations in a Cabinet of intellectuals that promised more than it could deliver. The economic tribulations began immediately; the trades unions flexed their muscles in response, leading to the bifurcation of the Labour Party that is still visible today. 

1968 was the year of hubris for the Left across the West, not least in Britain, and it proved decisive for my father too. That year he backed Barbara Castle’s vain attempt to place limits on union power with her In Place of Strife proposals, but many New Statesman readers did not believe his warnings about the political consequences of failure. 

As a boy of about eleven, I recall being introduced to Harold Wilson and being struck by the fact that my father addressed him as “Prime Minister” and that he responded “Paul”. They were allies in what proved a hopeless quest for industrial peace. My father emerged from this bruising episode disillusioned, and dismayed by proletariat and intelligentsia alike.

He still had his wilder moments of euphoria. In May 1968, he reported from les événements in Paris in an essay that opened with an allusion to Marx’s Eighteenth Brumaire: “A spectre is stalking Europe — the spectre of student power.” He was in deadly earnest: 

Anyone who is fascinated by political processes and public philosophies should make every effort to go to Paris now. For what is happening there is of great importance not only to France but to the world. To be there is a political education, to watch the birth-pangs of a new approach to the organisation of human societies.

With his flowing red locks, it is no wonder he was seen by some as a symbol of left-wing radicalism. Yet by the end of the decade he was forced to rethink both his politics and his purpose in life. The Wilson government’s failures had cured him not only of his residual socialist assumptions, but also of his Keynesian faith in the state’s capacity to manage economic demand, preserve full employment and prevent inflation.

In 1970 he resigned as editor of the New Statesman. It seemed a natural part of the narrative of a satirical parody I wrote about the election that year, which Labour lost. 

… he ignored brickbats from envious dons

Instead of a daily commute to London, he began working from home. The house was hushed while he worked. Reborn as a historian, he ignored brickbats from envious dons. He gave up smoking, but drink could intermittently transform him from benign sage into a frightening ogre. Nevertheless, his productivity was astonishing: 13 books in his first decade as a full-time writer, including large-scale histories of England and of Christianity, plus a full-scale biography of Queen Elizabeth I. 

The return of Labour to power in 1974 unleashed new demands from the unions, emboldened by the failure of Edward Heath’s “Who governs Britain?” election campaign. The following year, my father launched a campaign against the unions: his friend and successor, Tony Howard, allowed him to fire broadsides in the New Statesman. His focus was less on the economic impact of inflation-busting pay rises than on the threat posed by union power to freedom and the rule of law.

What had happened? The factors in play were both macro- and microcosmic. A decisive issue was the impact of union militancy on his own profession, which he had studied as a member of the Royal Commission on the Press. The unions had brought the industry to its knees and endangered the freedom of the press. Union leaders also posed a constitutional threat, having destroyed one government and undermined its successor. Here were the “enemies of society” (the title of his 1977 political credo) hiding in plain sight. A cartoon he drew of a TUC conference at Blackpool in 1977 (above) is an image of the fury and fanaticism against which he set his face.

At a deeper level, my father also became much more aware that the Left was engaged in an assault on the values of the Judaeo-Christian West. Though seemingly defused by détente, the Cold War was the context of his personal crusade against the acid of relativism that was corroding the moral framework of the free world. 

“Moral relativism has been the cardinal sin of the twentieth century,” he wrote in The Quest for God (1996), “the reason why it has been such a desperately unhappy and destructive epoch in human history.” Yet he was also confident of ultimate victory because “there is no such thing as absolute belief in relative morality”. Conscience, he wrote, “rises above relative values and insists on absolute ones”. 

When Margaret Thatcher burst onto the scene, proclaiming such “Victorian values” as self-help and thrift, freedom and patriotism, my father’s response was instinctively enthusiastic. His own parents (whom he revered) had been Victorians, after all. As personalities, Mrs Thatcher and he were opposites. But he admired her indomitable courage and she was thrilled to have made such an eloquent convert on the Left.

By 1977, he was ready to draw the logical conclusion, whatever the cost. That summer, while I was staying in Jerusalem after working on a kibbutz, I chanced upon a copy of The Times. Emblazoned across the front page was the headline: “Paul Johnson leaves the Labour Party.” The news shocked me. I had thought of my family as life-long, tribal Labour supporters. And now this.

On 14 October that year, Mrs Thatcher addressed the Conservative Party Conference in Blackpool. As she approached the triumphant peroration of her speech, she turned to “the hopes of millions who are Conservative and millions who are not. But who look to us because they feel instinctively that what is happening to their country threatens not only their freedom but everything that made it materially and morally great.” 

“Paul Johnson,” she continued, “expressed it movingly and with a writer’s clarity the other day, when he resigned from the Labour Party.” She proceeded to quote his words: “I have come to appreciate, perhaps for the first time in my life, the overwhelming strength of my attachment to the individual spirit. The paramount need to keep it alive, I now see, is so great as to override any other principle whatever.”

At a turning point in British history, when his voice really mattered, my father put country before party and conscience before everything. He lost many friends, not only in the Labour Party, but in the academy and the intelligentsia. They did not forgive him even when, many years later, he lent Tony Blair his support in facing down the hard Left. But he never counted the cost of following his convictions. The little boy from the Potteries was still living dangerously.

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