“Argument,” Maurice Cowling wrote in 1981 to the editors of the London Review of Books, “is not what it seems to me suitable to do with opinions. What one does with opinions—all one needs to do with them, having found that one has them—is to enjoy them, display them, use them, develop them, in order to cajole, press, bully, soothe, and sneer other people into sharing (or being affronted by) them. To argue them is, it seems to me, a very vulgar, debating-society sort of activity.”
Cowling had been accused of “parochialism,” of harboring a “dislike of the modern world and its cultural effects,” of a “scepticism and distrust of all merely secular improvement.” His work had been called “peculiar,” his thoughts “tiresome,” and his writing “turgid” and “ambiguous.” Nothing could have pleased him more.
This was not the last time that this bilious, foul-mouthed, poker-playing English historian and fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, would publicly give thanks for a negative review. Cowling delighted in academic brawling. He was a proponent of what he called “reactionary bloodiness” who encouraged his students to be “vile” towards their intellectual opponents and his intellectual allies to employ “irony, geniality, and malice as solvents of enthusiasm, virtue, and elevation.”
He insisted that the only people who understood his work were those who not only disagreed with but were offended by it, and he was always disappointed when criticism, whether of himself or his confederates, fell short of this bizarre standard. He once protested to Hugh Trevor-Roper, of The Last Days of Hitler fame, that a colleague’s book, which Trevor-Roper had attacked in passing, was “filled with a great deal more blood than a mere passing sideswipe could bring out.”
Unlike Trevor-Roper, Cowling was never anything like a household name in Britain, and in the United States he has always been virtually unknown. He was not a television star like A.J.P. Taylor or a perennial syllabus item like Christopher Hill. He wrote no bestsellers, nor even any books that might be called popular, and despite—or perhaps because of—his advocacy of “class war” and his claim to loathe anything that smacked of the “rhetoric of progress, virtue, or improvement,” he was only a tepid supporter of Margaret Thatcher.
Yet only two decades ago he was sometimes referred to as “our greatest living historian.” This was always an extreme judgment, and probably one that reared its head in right-leaning newspaper and magazines as a result of Cowling’s many friends in Fleet Street. His work is difficult, with an acid prose style and sometimes frustrating lack of structure. But his wide reading and his command of primary sources—mainly diaries and letters held in private archives—allowed him to present radically contrarian versions of major events. His contempt for fashionable theories, indeed any theories, and cynicism about political motives make him a thorny but ultimately reliable guide to English history. Beyond that, he was also a singularly interesting man.
Cowling was born in Norwood, a distinctly unfashionable London suburb, in 1926. He dazzled his teachers at Battersea Grammar School, and his headmaster thought it possible that his pupil, who appeared as pious as he was clever, would one day become Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1943 an entrance essay in defense of the Stuarts, written under the influence of Arnold Toynbee, won him a scholarship to read history at Jesus College, Cambridge. After a single year of study, he was called up by the army and thereafter served in India, Egypt, and Libya. He saw no action in any of these locales—though he seems to have gotten plenty, at least in Cairo, where he became a frequent patron of brothels. This left the God-fearing young camp adjutant wracked by guilt and determined to seek holy orders in the Church of England.
Upon his return to England he continued his education at Jesus. Here both his conservatism and his Christianity were encouraged by a group of long-forgotten right-wing Anglican dons whose reputations he would later do his best to shore up. He began to subscribe to a kind of mystical fideism, dismissing both positivist criticisms of religion and rational arguments in favor of it. He saw the truth of Christianity as something that existed, uniquely, beyond the bounds of intellectual investigation, and the Incarnation and the Resurrection as miraculous events outside of history and transcendent of its vicissitudes. He refused to see a teleology undergirding human events and followed Herbert Butterfield—who became a mentor and eventually a colleague—in dismissing liberal notions of progress as philosophically incoherent.
It is difficult not to see Cowling’s faith as intimately bound up in his love of Cambridge. After earning a first-class degree he stayed on as a Ph.D. candidate and received a research fellowship. Throughout his time at Cambridge he attended Anglican services at the Jesus chapel, which had survived iconoclastic desecration under Edward VI and Cromwell alike and was thus a potent symbol of High Church resistance.
When he abandoned his doctoral studies in 1953, he lost his fellowship. Cowling was forced to leave the university, and almost immediately his clerical ambitions and desire to practice Christianity vanished. (Later in life he wryly suggested that he ceased to pursue ordination after learning how meagerly Anglican bishops were paid.)
The next eight or so years were nearly a lost decade for Cowling. He lectured for a time at the University of Reading and spent six months working for the Foreign Office in Jordan before falling into journalism. In rapid succession he was hired at and fired from the Manchester Guardian, the Times, the Daily Express, and the Daily Telegraph. In 1959 he stood unsuccessfully for Parliament, an experience he later compared to having “fifty teeth pulled.”
During this down-and-out period he returned intermittently to Cambridge to supervise undergraduates. He was good at this, and in 1960 he accepted a full-time position at Jesus, an appointment he held for three years before moving within Cambridge to Peterhouse college in 1963, which proved to be an annus mirabilis for him. In addition to obtaining the fellowship at Peterhouse, of which Butterfield was then Master, he published two books, The Nature and Limits of Political Science and Mill and Liberalism, both of which, with typical contrarianism, he later disavowed. (“I can’t stand those books, I never want to talk about them again!” he told one admirer in the late ’70s.)
Nature and Limits is perhaps the most accessible introduction to Cowling’s work. This is not to say that this short book about scholarly methodology makes for straightforward reading. Its pages are a maze of wayward asseveration decorated with ironic initial capitals and scare quotes. And every one of those 214 pages is laced with poison for social-scientific meliorists and high-minded newspaper editors who claim to “understand” politics or, worse, suggest ways in which it might be “improved.”
In the first chapter he makes clear what sort of book he hasn’t written. “Little,” he tells the reader,
is said in these pages about liberal democracy, the democratic ideal, social-democratic principles or the Welfare State and nothing whatever about Western values, the Two Cultures, the crisis of civilization, or Reconciliation (of religion to science, black to white or rich to poor). Nor is it asked whether Britain is a Good, Great, or Open Society or whether she is an Affluent, Acquisitive, or Irresponsible one. The political slogans of improving liberalism have no place in a work of this sort. ‘Christianity,’ wrote Archdeacon Cunningham in 1908, ‘has nothing whatever to do with modern social ideals.’ And nor, one may add, has political philosophy either.
Despite his sinister posturing, Nature and Limits is a sane, sensible book. One might call it simply a plea for non-overlapping dominions: let historians practice history; journalists, journalism; and politicians, politics. “An essential preliminary to serious political explanation is to abandon the belief that those who write but do not rule would be rather better at ruling (if they had the chance) than those who do,” he wrote. Cowling saw politics as a blood sport without rules or teams that affords few opportunities for spectating; he wanted academics to abandon moralizing and concentrate on explaining political successes and failures. Similarly, he believed that journalism was a “game which uses the public’s wish to be informed or entertained in order to make money or influence opinion: so long as it pretends to nothing more, it is tolerable. But once the attempt to inform gives way to the pretension to preach, irrelevance begins.”
Cowling’s second book, Mill and Liberalism, was not so much a hit job as a perfectly executed piece of academic hooliganism: its author rushes headlong into the Temple of Liberalism, stomping on whoopee cushions and letting off stink bombs, shouting and making rude gestures in front of a prized holy statue. Drawing as much on the icy confidence of Mill’s prose as on his ideas, Cowling reveals an intolerant autocrat very different from the apostle of libertarian broadmindedness quoted approvingly by pundits like William F. Buckley.
Cowling’s Mill was not an advocate of free men and free markets but an armchair dictator incapable of understanding why others disagreed with him, a begger of questions who deliberately framed his arguments in terms unfavorable to his opponents. Cowling must have been gratified to read Gertrude Himmelfarb’s outraged response in the New York Review of Books. Her schoolmarmish resentment at seeing a canonical figure whom she had spent so many years studying handled in this rough manner was the sort of thing he lived for.
But Cowling was indicting Mill and liberalism. He believed that freedom pursued in the abstract was a blind alley. Good “classical” liberalism vs. bad “progressive” liberalism was for him a distinction without a difference. “I suppose,” he once said to a tutee, “you’re some sort of Libertarian. It’s a pity the young don’t realize the point of the Tory party is to maintain inequality.”
Though neither sold well even by the standards of academic monographs, Cowling’s first two books strengthened his position at Peterhouse, of which wags dubbed him “the remaindered king.” Peterhouse is Cambridge’s oldest college and was, for much of Cowling’s tenure, also its most reactionary. Its atmosphere was one of aristocratic loucheness. Homosexuality was apparently widespread, as was riotous drinking. One old Petrean, writing in the Express on Sunday, recalled his experience there in the mid-’70s:
Homosexual dons were a source of amusement for most of the undergraduates. There was the oft-told story of one, an American historian, who chased an undergraduate naked across the Deer Park—that is, the don was naked—and who, during a drunken conversation in his rooms with quite a different undergraduate, began to pleasure himself. He was not regarded as dangerous so much as sad, and evading his clutches was treated as sport.
Cowling himself claimed to “have always mistrusted homosexuality” and “avoided its rituals and practices,” while admitting that he “would have been driven to imbecility if I had been intolerant during 30 years as a Fellow.”
Cowling’s office was on the second floor of a brutal concrete structure hidden away on the edge of the college. Here, in his filthy rooms, amid empty whiskey bottles and yesterday’s plates, Mills & Boon erotica, and pages torn from obscure volumes of ecclesiastical history, he would meet his students for tutorials, often while wearing an ancient green dressing gown over his suit. Although it has been said that if he found an essay particularly unsatisfactory he would throw it off the roof with a shout of “BALLS!”, he appears to have been a kind, sympathetic teacher more interested in spurring on minds than cloning young-fogey Francoists. In fact, the only thing he really seems to have discouraged tutees from doing was joining the Cambridge University Conservative Association.
Meanwhile, he had a one-year stint from 1970 to 1971 as literary editor of The Spectator, when his friend George Gale was editor, and he plugged away at a trilogy of books that applied the view of political practice articulated in Nature and Limits to, respectively, the passage of the 1867 Reform Act, the rise of the Labour Party, and the conduct of English diplomacy during the interwar period. Often considered his greatest contribution to history as such, these books examine the actions of politicians without reference either to ideas or to external social and political pressures.
For disinterested readers, appreciating the changefoot spins and axle jumps of Cowling’s favorite parliamentary figure skaters will be reason enough to enjoy these books, but there are important—some would say “revisionist”—historical conclusions here as well.
In 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution, Cowling presents the expansion of suffrage not as a consequence of Gladstone’s Liberals having been democratically minded progressives or of Disraeli’s Conservatives cowering in fear of working-class mobs, but rather of suffrage having been an issue, like any other, that could be used in a game of hot potato—the music just happened to stop in 1867. In The Impact of Hitler, he denied moral authority to opponents of Nazi appeasement, concluding that the Conservatives gave a war guarantee to Poland simply in order to score points against Labour.
He later made his feelings about the war much plainer in a 1989 article in the Sunday Telegraph. Here he excoriated “a war of moral indignation entered into without the resources to fight it” whose consequences were the end of the British Empire and the creation of the welfare state. He lamented the “dogmatism” that forced British conservatives to “present defeat as victory long after it has become clear that it was defeat.”
Following Butterfield’s retirement in 1968, Peterhouse came under the titular rule of first one, then a second elderly Master. The real power behind every decision made by the governing body, however, belonged to a group of “vampires,” so called because they seemed to appear only at night. At the head of this group was Cowling, who, perhaps influenced by the thousands of pages of politicians’ diaries and letters he was reading for his trilogy, began to take an increasing delight in cloak-and-dagger affairs. In matters of college intrigue he adopted a campily wicked persona that suggested not so much an Iago or an Edmund as it did Don John the Bastard or perhaps one of Marlowe’s clunkier stage villains.
In 1980 Cowling began lobbying to have Lord Dacre—as Hugh Trevor-Roper was styled after 1979—installed as the next Master. A self-described Whig whose first book had been a violently anticlerical biography of William Laud—the High Church Archbishop of Canterbury hated by Milton and doubtless beloved of much of the Peterhouse Fellowship—Dacre seems an odd choice for Peterhouse. He considered Cowling’s “style rebarbative and his ideas sometimes perverse” but accepted the offer anyway.
The next six years, during which the college reluctantly became the second to last at Cambridge to admit women, saw Cowling plotting relentlessly against the new Master, alongside his friend the Rev. Edward Norman, former leather-jacket-wearing radical and Dean of Peterhouse. This conflict spilled over into various public forums, including the letters pages of the New York Review of Books, and it is hard to say that Cowling came out on top of his opponent, who was a veteran of such campaigns and much the better writer.
All this provided the backdrop for the beginning of a second historical trilogy, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. Like Ulysses, this long work should probably be read straight through only once, if it all. Ostensibly an overview of the process whereby orthodox Christianity was replaced by liberalism as the religion of those exercising power and influence in England, it can be read profitably by the casual reader as a collection of interpretive capsule biographies of politicians, clergymen, historians, philosophers, novelists, journalists, economists, and scientists.
Some will be surprised by Cowling’s sympathies and enmities: he finds fault with Burke, for example, for zeroing in on 1789, as opposed to 1688, as the year the rot really set in, and Cowling argues that John Henry Newman’s Catholic conversion, while personally fulfilling, pushed him into public irrelevance. He dismisses Churchill as a kind of pagan Whig, C.S. Lewis as an ineffectual whimsy-monger, and Roger Scruton as an effete stick-in-the-mud who concedes too much to the post-Christian consensus.
By the time the last volume of Religion and Public Doctrine was published in 2003, Cowling had long retired from the Cambridge history faculty and his Peterhouse Fellowship. He spent his last years living fairly comfortably in Wales with his wife Patricia—George Gale’s widow—whom he married in 1996 but whose lover he seems to have been for several decades. He reviewed occasionally, praising the work of many younger historians, including that of Andrew Roberts, who returned the favor by including Cowling in a list of “revisionist historians” alongside Holocaust denier David Irving.
After a long period of ill health during which he occasionally found himself an object of public interest—his pupil Michael Portillo once looked poised to become John Major’s successor as leader of the Conservative Party—he died in 2005. The obituaries were largely admiring, even in the Guardian, which speaks as much to the more-than-occasional inscrutability that made his work less obviously offensive than it might have been as it does to editors’ broadmindedness.
Certainly it strains credulity to believe that some of the columnists and cabinet ministers who heaped vague praise upon Cowling’s work while he was alive made it through all 700,000-plus words of Religion and Public Doctrine. His great subjects—religion, 19th and 20th-century parliamentary history—do not fail to command popular interest, but his approach to them will leave many readers cold, confused, or both. While his obscurity might be explained by the fact that his books are currently available only as costly print-on-demand editions from Cambridge University Press, it is more likely that Cowling is simply unfit for mass consumption: a historian’s historian and a reactionary’s reactionary, a kind of High Tory Leo Strauss.
“We are all parochial,” he wrote to the editors of the London Review of Books. “Whether a clique, and its claque, becomes conspicuous or not may be related to the quality of its mind and activity, but is equally likely to be related to quite extraneous considerations, like its capacity for self-promotion and mutual admiration, and the contribution that it makes to prevailing fashions.”
Just as he would have liked it, then.
Matthew Walther is assistant editor of The American Spectator.