MY TOP SHELF – 14

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

14

ENGLAND IN THE AGE OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Sir Lewis Namier (1930)

Second Edition, Macmillan, 1961; rebound in quarter red Morocco with gold embossed label and stone cloth boards.

Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.

When Ved Mehta wrote a book about English intellectuals, he went to see a star pupil of the late Sir Lewis Namier, and a keeper of the flame, John Brooke.  A woman showed Mehta to Brooke’s room and said: ‘Mr Brooke is a very eccentric man.  When it gets cold, he wears an electric waistcoat plugged into the light socket, and reads aloud to himself.’  Such conduct would come within my understanding of the word ‘eccentric.’

Brooke said that Namier looked on history as bundles of biographies; his interest was in the small men rather than the big; he believed that psychology was as important to history as mathematics was to astronomy; he looked at how men and women responded to the pressure of circumstances; his east European Jewish background enabled him to see his adopted and idolized nation in perspective; unlike liberals, he had no faith in progress – it was not that he did not wish to reform institutions that were decrepit – he just hated seeing them go; he would hammer out the first draft of a work with two-finger typing, and not be able to revise it until his secretary had finished the first draft – a process that might be repeated ten or more times.  He would go back and forth between his research boxes and indexes and his typewriter.  ‘It would be a constant process of writing and rewriting, shaping and reshaping, agony and more agony – and the biography was not more than a seven-thousand word job.’

There were other sources of pain.  He never relished acceptance by the English intellectual establishment; his deeply withdrawn nature led him to psychoanalysis; he suffered a cramp in the arm that got worse with the ill treatment of the Jews in the thirties – he was so terrified by the thought of a German occupation that he got a bottle of poison from a doctor friend and carried it in his waistcoat so that he could kill himself if the Germans came.

But his work, beginning with The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in 1929, hit English literature like an earthquake in much the same way as F R Leavis did with literary criticism – and people who shake up the Establishment like that can expect a backlash.

Namier was, I am told, not an easy person to be with.  He was not respected as a teacher, and in good English universities that is a real minus.  John Kenyon referred to his ‘granitic seriousness, and the monomaniacal way in which he would impose his thoughts on others’  Sir Jack Plumb referred to the vulgar name-calling: ‘Constipation Namier – the big shit we can’t get rid of.’

Rejection was not new to Namier – his father cut him off for his espousal of Zionism – but exclusion breeds resentment and more exclusion – Namier became a frightful snob and name-dropper, and he fell for the English aristocracy.  He would never be offered a chair at Oxford, Cambridge or London – according to Kenyon, his commitment to Zionism ‘increased the coolness of an Arab-orientated upper class.’  A more rewarded historian – a man named Butterfield – had what might be called the Establishment view that ‘the point of teaching history to undergraduates is to turn them into public servants and statesmen…but I happen to think history is a school of wisdom and statesmanship.’  Butterfield thought that Namier’s factual inquiry was cutting the ground from under the feet of would-be philosopher-kings.

Why not just try to open their minds?  Things have changed.  The advocacy of the ideas or ideals of a dying empire now looks to us like a prospectus for a School for Bullshit.  But Butterfield and others went after Namier like gnats straining at a camel, and Namier became a kind of celebrity.

To those who have had to make findings of fact on inadequate and conflicting evidence, the Namier revolution seems to be the unsurprising suggestion that history should be based on evidence rather than romance.  From this book on the shelf, we have the following.

The basic elements of the Imperial Problem during the American Revolution must be sought not so much in conscious opinions and professed views bearing directly on it, as in the very structure and life of the Empire; and in doing that, the words of Danton should be remembered – on ne fait pas le proces aux revolutions.  Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motoring accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

No wonder the idealists and the Glory Boys were crestfallen, but on Namier’s death, an undergraduate wrote to Lady Namier saying that ‘he was probably the only truly great man that I have known personally.’  It is not hard to see how Namier could have had precisely that effect.  He was like a great artist who has taken the trouble to learn how to draw.  After Namier had done the hard work of amassing and sifting the evidence, he could allow himself a go with the broad brush.

‘Characteristic of English social groups is the degree of freedom which they leave to the individual and the basic equality of their members, the voluntary submission to the rules of ‘the game’ and the curious mixture of elasticity and rigidity in these rules; most of all, the moral standards which these groups enforce or to which they aspire.  Characteristic of the German social group is the utter, conscious subordination of the individual, the iron discipline which they enforce, the high degree of organisation and efficiency which they attain, and their resultant inhumanity.  The State is an aim in itself….The English national pattern raises individuals above their average moral level, the German suppresses their human sides.’  (Conflicts, 1941)

‘And it was again on the masses that Hitler drew: what was worst in the Germans, their hatreds and resentments, their envy and cruelty, their brutality and adoration of force, he focused and radiated back on them.  A master in the realm of psyche but debarred from that of the spirit, he was the Prophet of the Possessed; and interchange there was between him and them, unknown between any other political leader and his followers.  This is the outstanding fact about Hitler and the Third Reich.’ (Personalities and Powers, 1955.)

‘But revolutions are not made; they occur…..The year 1848 proved in Germany that union could not be achieved through discussion and by agreement; that it could be achieved only by force; that there were not sufficient revolutionary forces in Germany to impose from below; and that, therefore, if it was to be, it had to be imposed by the Prussian army.’  (Vanished Supremacies, 1957)

‘The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.’  (Structure, etc., 2nd Ed, 1957.  ‘Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…’)

‘Trade was not despised in eighteenth-century England – it was acknowledged to be the great concern of the nation; and money was honoured, the mystic common denominator of all values, the universal repository of as yet undetermined possibilities….A man’s status in English society has always depended primarily on his own consciousness; for the English are not a methodical or logical nation – they perceive and accept facts without anxiously inquiring into their reasons or meaning.’  (England in the Age, etc., 2nd Ed, 1961; ‘….Fox would probably have found it easier to account for his fears than for the money…’).

On Charles Townshend: ‘He did not change or mellow; nor did he learn by experience; there was something ageless about him; never young, he remained immature to the end…Conscious superiority over other men freely flaunted, a capacity for seeing things from every angle displayed with vanity, and the absence of any deeper feelings of attachment left Townshend, as Chase Price put it, “entirely unhinged.”’  (Crossroads of Power, 1962).

The English aristocracy survived, almost alone in Europe.  They had been able to reach an accommodation with the Commons in shaping the English constitution, and they reached an accommodation with business and money in shaping British trade.  This triumph of the English aristocracy is unique in all Europe, and the failure of English historians to notice it, let alone celebrate it, is a sad reflection upon the provincialism and specialization of too much of English historical writing.  Namier saw it plainly, but he was from out of town.  Maitland frequently stressed the need for a comparative outlook, and was deeply interested in German history.  French historians such as Marc Bloch and Georges Lefebvre laced their analyses of the history of France and Europe with comparisons with what was happening across the Channel, and their work was so much more illuminating as a result.  But English historians do not often return that serve.  How often do you read in English history how the French law of derogation precluded the French lords from engaging in trade?  For example, under the heading La Noblesse et L’Argent, (The Nobility and Money), Georges Lefebvre remarked that the French lords envied the English lords who became rich on mixing with the bourgeoisie and who, thanks to their Parliament, formed the ministry and government of the nation.

The English lack of interest in Europe has borne fruit, and is currently celebrating a kind of mordant vindication, but the mind-set may also be at risk of being described as insular – definitively insular – with all the darkening and proud exclusion that that state of mind entails.

They are the kind of sparks you come across when reading Namier.  I can imagine he was difficult, a stranger to his new people, and possibly disloyal to his old people, and he was denied the acceptance that he craved and that he had so plainly earned.  My copy of The Structure, etc., has a letter signed by Namier on faded blue paper Shepherds Bush 2445, 60 The Grampians W 6, 14 December 1950.  The tone is antiseptic, but the signature is defiantly formal and straight.

When I read Namier, it is like being overtaken by a Bentley or listening to Joan Sutherland – you just know that there is plenty left in the tank.  Just as I think that Maitland’s intellect was far stronger than that of Pollock’, so I think that Namier was stronger than Berlin – it is just that the other two were better at the game.

Sir Geoffrey Elton was another import with a name-change who changed the way people saw his part of the history of England.  Elton said this about the reaction to Namier: ‘….the violence provoked by Namier owed much to the astonishment felt in conventional circles at the uncalled-for appearance of a historian with tory predilections who clearly outranked the liberals intellectually.’  We all recognize that syndrome immediately – the refuge of the tepid, the mediocre, the smug, and the fellow-travellers.  I have been a fan of Namier since 1963, and I will stay loyal to him.  I am not aware of anyone writing history now who comes even close.  He had a most formidable and penetrating intellect.  And how many historians now would have the courage to refer to ‘plain human kindness’?

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