New College of the Humanities

An Historian in the Twentieth Century; & Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics

William Lamont | Published in History Today

An Historian in the Twentieth Century

 Max Beloff (Yale University Press, 1992, vi + 138 pp.)

Studies in Tudor and Stuart Politics, iv, Papers and Reviews 1982-1990

G.R. Elton (Cambridge University Press, 1992, x + 321 pp.)

Two great historians of a conservative frame of mind look back not in anger but at times with pique. The result, in both cases, for the reader is a stimulating experience. Lord Beloff’s title suggests a more personal note; more of that is actually to be found in the latest collection of Sir Geoffrey Elton's papers and reviews. For Beloff has eschewed the autobiographical (apart from a tantalisingly brief but austere glimpse into his childhood). What he has done is to make his career a vehicle for wise thoughts about British, French, American and Russian history. The breadth of his interests compels respect, as does his modesty in attributing his shifts in historical interest to chance. The two historians have much in common. Erudite products of Jewish migration, they have found their spiritual home in Britain and Toryism: latter day Disraelis in love with 'the stupid party' (Beloff's debt to Disraeli is acknowledged, p. 23).

Neither has time for feminist history or for history without kings and battles. Both are drawn to the executive, rather than legislative, perspective, ‘Whitehall rather than Westminster' (Beloff; p. 36). Henry Vll's prescription for efficiency, hard work and no holidays, goes down a treat with Elton (p. 86). Both are bemused (Elton, p. 309, Beloff, p. 7) by Peter Novick's account of how the 'objectivity question' has polarised the American historical profession; to both, it is seen as a non-problem. Professionalism and a personal input do not pose for Beloff intolerable choices: perhaps his admiration for Collingwood (p. 7) prevents him from falling into E.H. Carr's trap, of seeing The Idea of History as an apology for historical relativism. Both dislike prophets: 'when one approaches the age of eighty, prophecy does not become one' (Beloff, p. 7); 'leave it to the prophets' (Elton on annaliste historians, p. 292). Elton's one stab at prophecy in 1985 looks less secure now: 'if we have a secure institution left in this country, it is not the Parliament and it is not the Trade Unions; it is still the monarchy' (p. 78). They differ, it would seem, only on the merits of the historian, Theodore Zeldin. His 'pointillist history of France' is denounced rather convincingly, according to Elton (p. 306), hut his 'extraordinary degree of learning and empathy' is saluted by Beloff (p. 44, footnote l).

From the Whitehall perspective both historians derive their considerable strength. It is not always an unmixed blessing. Beloff notes, unrepentantly, his isolation from most of his academic colleagues in refusing to condemn the British action at Suez in 1956. His marvellous teacher at St Paul's – to whom he pays a just and generous tribute: ‘that most dynamic of schoolmasters, Philip Whitting' (p. 3) – took a similar line. I taught with Whitting then and know how shocked he was by that adventure, but at the same time he refused to believe that Eden (with an excellent university degree) and the able people at the Foreign Office had taken leave of their senses. They must be given the benefit of the doubt. Ironically, in the retrospective accounts of those who were at the Foreign Office then, like Hugh (now Lord) Thomas, there is the same dismay registered: a temptation to resign, resisted only as a damage-limitation exercise. But staying on conferred its own legitimacy.

It is not simply that both are Establishment historians: their tone is that of beleagured Establishment historians. Do Che Guevara and Dr Spock really rule the campuses still? Malcolm Bradbury once lamented the slowness of his writing, which meant his History Man came out some ten years after the events he lampooned. Since the influential television version came out later still, a peculiar distortion was perpetrated: University freedom was in peril (in fiction) from left-wing cant, (in fact) from right-wing philistinism. That philosophy would reach its apogee in the attempt to impose a centralised body of information upon the curriculum, which all history pupils would learn. That attempt was bravely resisted by the Government's own Working Party, supported by academic historians across the political spectrum.

When the first centralising kite was flown years ago – and dons were told to keep a weekly diary – Sir Geoffrey Elton had a good letter of protest in The Times. A colleague played with the thought of reminding Elton that the first of these interfering busybodies was – Thomas Cromwell. It seems that if he had gone ahead with the idea, it would not have disconcerted Elton one whit. He glories (p. 151) in his failure to master the word-processor, to underline the crassness of critics who see Elton's Cromwell as a simple self-identification. One of the best of Elton's essays in the present collection is on Butterfield. The tone is critical, but it is not ungenerous. Butterfield, after all, was not a feminist historian, or an annaliste. Above all, he was not J.E. Neale, R.W. Chambers or Sir Thomas More. He notes Butterfield's lack of a sense of proportion, railing at the ghost of Lord Acton while the real live enemies on the left went unpunished.

But can the same he said of Elton, the other way round? Can he subscribe to the present age of accountancy, when research equals publications and teaching equals audit? Dissent is coming from unexpected quarters. Kingsley (more-means-worse) Amis laments, in his recent memoirs, how his beloved Mrs Thatcher got it wrong on higher education. Professor Cox, co-begetter of the Education Black Paper, issues an eloquent mea culpa. Lord Beloff may have taken the Party Whip in the Lords, but he notes how far his views on higher education diverge from those of his Government (p. 6). Here is a prophecy offered to two fine scholars who do not like prophecy: their long love-affair with 'the stupid party’ may be about to be drawing to its close.

William Lamont is the co-author of The World of the Muggletonians (Temple Hill, 1983).

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