The unhappy iconoclast of the Right

J. C. D Clark reviews Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier by D. W. Hayton

Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier By D. W. Hayton. Manchester University Press, 2019, £25

What is a conservative revolutionary? More shocking still, what is a Conservative historian? How do they arise? How are they frustrated? They are rare animals indeed, but this study of one of the greatest of them promises to help us understand.

Like other intellectuals of his day, Namier’s life was disrupted by real (not metaphorical) revolution. Born Ludwik Bernstein Niemirowski in Russian Poland in 1888, he was educated at the Universities of Lwów and Lausanne, and at the London School of Economics. He studied at Balliol College, Oxford from 1908, which he idealised, volunteered as a private soldier in the British army in 1914 and took British nationality. He was a civil servant from 1915, advising (unhappily) the government on eastern Europe and Palestine, finally in the Foreign Office in 1918-20. He taught without tenure at Balliol, survived by journalism and was the Secretary of the Jewish Agency. His marriage failed.

Centrally, he published two groundbreaking historical books in 1929-30, but the planned series that was to follow “fizzled out”. Namier held, unhappily, a chair of history at Manchester University from 1931 to 1953. He laboured to help Jewish refugees from Nazism and to establish a Jewish homeland, this only adding to “an accumulating store of disillusionments”. He prepared for suicide in case of a successful invasion in 1939, and suffered from increasing “mental turmoil”. He remarried after baptism in the Church of England, an act that a fellow Zionist called “apostasy”.

After the war he was hailed as the leading British historian of the day, but was blocked from chairs at Oxford and Cambridge, seeing mediocrities appointed in his place. And he fought Sir John Neale over the shape of the multi-volume History of Parliament. This project, his life’s work, became a “self-destructive obsession”. “Increasingly acrimonious” tensions over completion would “blight the last years of his life”until his death in 1960. Namier, an extraordinarily talented man, had an extraordinarily unhappy life. Perhaps that is the best definition of a Conservative revolutionary.

This book is especially good in revealing the central European and Zionist dimensions of Namier’s work and knowledge, including his writings on nineteenth- and twentieth-century European history. Yet it is disappointingly conventional in its account of his research on eighteenth-century English politics, which is, oddly, the biographer’s own field. Hayton was employed by the History of Parliament Trust, and brings an insider’s insight, but perhaps he regrets his labours on a treadmill designed by Sir Lewis. Having escaped to Ulster, Hayton now has the last word.

Ironically, he writes a carefully researched biography along lines pioneered by the History of Parliament. There is much on his subject’s family background, childhood experience, patronage, and connections; little on political ideas, religion, or revolution.

No youthful conservative, Namier initially inclined to socialism. “So deep was his hostility to the old dynastic empires of central and eastern Europe — Austrian, Russian and Ottoman — that he was prepared to accept even the Bolshevik regime as a step towards the liberation of subject nationalities.” In the 1920s Hayton attributes Namier’s signing with a publisher to a “one nation Conservatism” that Namier shared with Harold Macmillan, then a junior partner of the eponymous firm. Later, Namier reinvented himself as, in his words, “a Tory radical”. Namier’s position evolved over time; it had no roots in nostalgia or reaction.

Instead, his politics were shaped by his prior European commitments, especially anti-German ones, and by his historical research. England’s dominant self-image had been built on a myth, memorably identified by Herbert Butterfield as the Whig interpretation of history: the supposedly forward-looking, progressive dynamic of events. In one critical episode, the controversy surrounding the accession of George III in 1760, Whigs had denounced that monarch as a Tory absolutist, depriving the Whig politicians of the power they had rightly held since 1714.

Namier encouraged the young with kindness and loyalty but he was impatient towards his mediocre seniors

In this vision, George’s constitutional violations led to the American Revolution, war against the French Revolution, and, by extension, the establishment’s resistance to reform in the nineteenth century. Namier’s early books showed that Parliament worked in quite different ways in 1760-2, in response to pragmatic needs and ambitions: there was no Tory reaction, no monarchical coup. A technical argument, it was widely subversive to a degree now forgotten.

Hayton traces the trajectory of the historical school branded Namierism by its opponents: like all human enterprises, it was born, flourished and died. The first fruit of Namier’s great History of Parliament project was published posthumously in 1964, a history of the House of Commons in 1754-1790. It seemed to vindicate, in the age of the American Revolution, Namier’s own dismissal of party and ideology.

But Namierism was soon compromised from within. The next instalment of the series, a history of the House of Commons in 1715-1754, published in 1970, revealed a very different picture. Led by the research of Dr Eveline Cruickshanks (who, sadly, does not appear in Hayton’s book), it showed the long survival of principled party conflict. Worse still, it showed that the Tories had been deeply implicated in Jacobitism. This launched a reintegration of scholarship on the history of political ideology and scholarship on party history.

Some political scientists identify two sorts of conservatism, the procedural and the substantive. Procedural conservatism prioritises pragmatic, sensible adaptation to change. Substantive conservatism prioritises adherence to certain principles, beliefs, values and social forms. Whigs insist that the change to which procedural conservatism always capitulated was Whig change: Whigs could not lose. By contrast, Whigs announce that the ideologies that substantive conservatism adhered to were absurd, outdated, reactionary, implausible: Tories could not win.

Which sort of conservative was Namier? He appears in this volume chiefly as an adherent of the first position; late in life, especially with Zionism, the tide turned towards the second. It may be that he was at the right place at the right time. His own life experience led him to repudiate, indeed denigrate, the politics of principle. The British, after fighting two world wars, often thought similarly. But that was then.

The reception of Hayton’s biography has shown that the left still, remarkably, needs to talk Namier down. Paranoid people have enemies too, and much of this book is about the resistance Namier met with in his adopted country in his lifetime and after. Adherents of the Whig interpretation of history naturally tried to marginalise so devastating a critic, but the purposefulness of the Whig interpretation, its teleology, meshed effortlessly with the Marxist commitments that spread in the universities from the 1960s: the left establishment, too, had deep reasons for denigrating Namier.

There is now another. Namier’s parents had been secular Jews, as he was himself. He shared the blindness to religion in the past that characterised historians of the early and mid- twentieth century. Yet he was an active Zionist, and here the present-day left has a newly urgent reason for diminishing him.

In England Namier never quite became an insider. Why was this? Hayton has uncovered documentary evidence for the ugly antisemitism that denied Namier a fellowship both at All Souls and at Balliol. His prickliness and fondness for the monologue hardly helped.

But many leading figures on the left in academe were more egotistical and conversationally dictatorial than the Namier presented here: they were not barred on those grounds. Namier encouraged the young with kindness and loyalty; he was impatient mainly towards his mediocre seniors, and this they could not forgive. It is a familiar tactic in academe to cite the character faults of a candidate whom the establishment has already decided not to appoint; but this was always an excuse.

More generally, Namier was resented because he stood head and shoulders above many historians of his age in technical expertise and in international range. In the technical skills that he deployed on primary sources he was a master, by contrast turning colleagues into amateurs. He was, moreover, a European intellectual before he was an English historian, as, later, was Eric Hobsbawm. But where the left praised their Marxist ally, similar qualities were held against a figure of the right.

Hayton is sometimes oddly unsympathetic to his subject. He is cool about “Namier’s contemptuously iconoclastic treatment of established figures in the world of historical scholarship”. Hayton rehearses with approval the well-known developments in history writing that meant that Namier’s reputation was subject to “rapid dethroning” after his death, including the readoption of party as a model for eighteenth-century politics and the growing interest in the history of “the people at large”. Its historians successfully denigrated the history of political manoeuvre and reasserted the claim that the dynamics of popular politics constituted the locomotive of history. But it might be suggested that these shortcomings were more often those of second or third generation Namierites than of the master himself.

Namier was never quite an insider, but academe today is far less diverse, tolerant and open than it was towards the Jewish émigrés of his generation. There would be no knighthood, no Oxford honorary degree, no Ford lectures, no Fellowship of the British Academy, no Honorary Fellowship of Balliol, for a present-day Namier. One of the revealing academic events of 2019 was the memorial service in London for another remarkable historian of the right, Norman Stone.

Like Namier, Stone possessed an immediate access to the inwardness of his subjects, in his case in central and eastern European history. Like Namier, he was an inspiring teacher, and won remarkable loyalty. But his lesser colleagues resented these gifts, and magnified his faults: when Oxford squeezed him out, no other UK university appointed him.

Even so, times change. Events since the referendum of 2016 make many people less convinced of the substantive wisdom and procedural prudence of the Westminster Parliament than either the Whigs or the socialists once were. The teleologies of European integration and of class politics no longer seem self-evident. Perhaps Namier’s revolutionary contribution has not been finally refuted by the recent historical fashions that Hayton warmly mentions. Does this suggest that Namier’s reputation, and the hard-nosed study of parliamentary politics, is due for a revival?

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