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Maurice Cowling

26 August 2005

The Times


Maurice Cowling, historian, was born on September 6, 1926. He died on August 24, 2005, aged 78.


Cambridge historian who influenced a generation of Conservative politicians and was a scourge of the liberal intelligentsia.


 Throughout his career Maurice Cowling was never comfortable with being described as a historian, since, as he explained, he had "drifted into becoming a professional historian despite an intense conviction, acquired early and never lost, that professional history is an illusion and historical writing an instrument of doctrine".

 For this reason, perhaps, it is as much for his influence as teacher and mentor to the conservatives in academia and the higher journalism, as for his rebarbative contributions to professional historical writing, that he will be remembered.

 However, in a series of three books about British political history, he demonstrated that he could wrestle, albeit sinuously, with traditional historical problems as well as any of his contemporaries; and in so doing he gave rise to a distinctive school of revisionist historiography dubbed "high politics", which attributed the pre-eminence in bringing about significant political change to the interaction of members of the political elite rather than to popular agitation, as liberal and left-wing historians had assumed.

 Maurice John Cowling was born in Norwood, South London. His father was a patent agent who studied privately to obtain the qualifications for setting up in business on his own, something he achieved at the age of 40, enlisting his wife as book-keeper. The family moved to Streatham, where, from 1937, Cowling attended Battersea Grammar School. When their house was bombed in 1939, they moved to Cheam, while Cowling's school was evacuated to Worthing and then to Hertford, where he spent his sixth-form years lodging in other people's houses.

 This nomadic existence did not deter him from reading extensively and in 1943, before he was 17, he won a scholarship to read history at Jesus College, Cambridge. He had already betrayed an interest in religion, and his headmaster thought him clever enough to become an archbishop of Canterbury.

 The timing of his arrival in Cambridge was significant, as he later explained, since many of the younger dons, who had been undergraduates in the Thirties and thus suffused with liberal-left ideas, had gone away to fight; as a result, he was instead exposed to reactionary dons whose teaching, and in some cases mere presence, had a profound effect on his thinking.

 Soon after Cowling took his preliminary exams at Cambridge, he was himself called up and joined the Queen's Royal Regiment. Once trained as an infantry soldier he was sent to Bangalore, India, as an officer cadet in 1945. Towards the end of his military service, in Egypt, he underwent a spiritual crisis, fuelled in part by overwrought feelings of guilt about lust (he had been frequenting prostitutes in Cairo), and he contemplated seeking ordination as an Anglican priest -an urge which waned, however.

 In 1948 he returned to Cambridge to complete his degree with a double first. He hankered to return to India and so registered to do a doctorate on "Government, Politics and Society in India, 1860-90". During 1950-51 he studied in Delhi, Calcutta and Bombay, and when he returned to England he was offered a research fellowship at his old college. He abandoned his doctorate and continued to read and reflect on English thought, and began a debunking book about the liberal historian Lord Acton.

 Having failed to obtain a permanent fellowship, he was drawn to a career outside university and after a vacation job on the Manchester Guardian in 1954 he took the exam for late-entry into the Foreign Office, where he worked for six months on the Jordan desk. However, in early 1955 The Times took him on as a foreign leader-writer. He was sacked little more than a year later, and was sacked again from a similar job on the Daily Express after an even shorter spell.

 It was during the Suez crisis that he awoke to the dominant liberal ethos of British public life and began to nurse his contempt for its exemplars. In 1958 he returned to Cambridge to teach but he was still susceptible to the world beyond academia: the following year he wrote a number of leaders for The Daily Telegraph and stood unsuccessfully as Conservative candidate for Bassetlaw at the general election.

 With these diversions placed firmly behind him, Cowling could devote his energies to his academic career, gaining a fellowship at Jesus College and, in 1961, a lectureship with the history faculty. Apart from punishing teaching commitments - at one stage he supervised pupils for 40 hours a week and, so legend had it, even after the college gates were closed at midnight -he worked on a couple of books with a marked polemical flavour, The Nature and Limits of Political Science and Mill and Liberalism, both published in 1963. These set the tone for a career which would never be far from controversy and which was sealed by his move to Peterhouse in 1963, where he remained as a Fellow until 1988.

He provided his students with models of archival research and feline interpretation in 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution (1967), The Impact of Labour (1971) and The Impact of Hitler (1975). They were also gauntlets thrown down to the liberal Left in that they offered a wholly different approach to key events in the progressive heritage: the advance of democracy, the emergence of the Labour Party, and the resistance by English politicians to European fascism.

 However, the political books of the 1960s and 1970s, though extremely influential, were essentially a sideshow -as Cowling put it, "writing about politics was not a substitute for, but merely a prelude to, writing about religion".

 His masterwork was the three-volume study of the liberalisation of British thought and culture, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (1980, 1985 and 2001), which at once gave the most consistent index to Cowling's "narrow mind" as he was fond of calling it -a tease, since his reading and knowledge in certain areas were quite awesome in their depth -and aroused much debate. One critic, though an admirer of Cowling's intellectual rigorousness, called it "a work as long as Carlyle's Frederick the Great, and as little read".

 In both political and academic debate, Cowling's scorn was reserved for liberal "vileness" and "ethical earnestness", but "vileness" was reversible, and he set great store by the need for Conservatives to be "vile" or "beastly" towards liberals. In the 1960s he campaigned against plans within the university to introduce a course in sociology, which he regarded as a vehicle for liberal dogma -he wanted thinkers such as Marx, Hegel and Comte to be examined along with Hobbes, Locke and Burke in the political thought papers which formed part of the history tripos and which he taught with such verve and trenchancy.

 Cowling served as a Conservative councillor in Cambridge for several years and was a keen politician on Peterhouse's governing body, an activity which he compared to breathing. He had been invited to Peterhouse by its Master, the historian Herbert Butterfield, with whom he shared an intellectual affinity. In governing body meetings Butterfield relied on Cowling to extend all other items of business so that there was never time to discuss the final item on the agenda, the perennial obsession of one particular reformist don, namely "The future of the college".

 But Cowling's signal success in this context backfired. He had been instrumental in wooing Lord Dacre of Glanton (the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper) from Oxford to become Master of Peterhouse and in persuading his other Fellows to accept Dacre.

 Part of his motivation in this, as he readily admitted, was that Dacre would discombobulate his colleagues; but Dacre turned out to be the uncontrollable monster to Cowling's Frankenstein, dismissing Peterhouse as a "social Biggleswade" and threatening to remove the tenure of one don. Cowling found himself fighting a rearguard action against the very man he had been responsible for installing as Master.

 His connections with Tory journalists were always strong. George Gale, Peregrine Worsthorne and Colin Welch - all old Petreans - were friends, and when Gale was appointed editor of The Spectator in 1970, Cowling became its literary editor for a year. During the 1970s Peterhouse was home to a number of conservative dons, including Edward Norman, David Watkin, Shirley Letwin and Roger Scruton, and it began to project an image, particularly in the estimation of the liberal media, as a force of right-wing influence with Cowling at its epicentre. He was a founder in 1978 of the Salisbury Group, a ginger group of academics and journalists dedicated to furthering Conservative thought, and he edited Conservative Essays, a collection which showed that Tory academics were no longer reluctant to hide their allegiance.

 One of his undergraduate pupils in the early Seventies had been the Tory politician Michael Portillo, who later indicated in interviews that Cowling had been a powerful formative influence, citing in particular the preface to The Impact of Labour where Cowling outlined his conclusion that the manoeuvrings and rhetoric of some 50 or 60 politicians, and not the popular masses, had determined the outcome of Labour's experiment in government in the 1920s.

 Cowling also maintained connections with other former pupils immersed in Conservative politics - Alistair Cooke, for many years a linchpin of the Conservative research department; Hywel Williams, an adviser to John Redwood; and David Ruffley, MP, an adviser to Kenneth Clarke. Others taught by him or influenced by his personality were Oliver Letwin, Charles Moore, Norman Stone, Niall Ferguson, Frank Johnson and Andrew Roberts.

 Cowling's influence extended to the US, where he was friendly with conservative academics and journalists, including Hilton Kramer and Roger Kimball at The New Criterion. Kramer introduced Cowling to Adelphi University, Long Island, where he enjoyed several semesters of light teaching and generous pay cheques while he worked on the final volume of Religion and Public Doctrine.

 At times the completion of this project seemed as unlikely as that of the gargantuan "Key to All Mythologies" being written by Casaubon in George Eliot's Middlemarch. The typescript for his third volume, which described nearly every thinker who sought to support or undermine public expression of Christian beliefs in the last two centuries, was twice as long as the typescript of each of the previous volumes.

 The finished version accused many of those charged with the defence of Christianity of failing to fight on the right ground in the best manner. One of its strengths was its recognition that the reasons which intellectuals give when advancing their views are simply declamations of personal propaganda.

 Cowling is survived by his wife Pat, whom he married in 1996 and who was formerly married to George Gale.





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