WORLD-OBITS-L ArchivesArchiver > WORLD-OBITS > 2005-08 > 1125055526
From: "Peter_McCrae" <>
Subject: COWLING; Maurice John-24/8/2005>UK--obits,the telegraph.co.uk
Date: Fri, 26 Aug 2005 12:25:26 +0100
The Daily Telegraph & the telegraph.co.uk
Maurice Cowling, the historian and Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, who died
on Wednesday aged 78, was a leading political historian of the England of
the 19th and 20th centuries; he was also a scourge of liberalism, and was
often credited with being a major influence on Margaret Thatcher.
Cowling argued that liberalism as a political creed was not about freedom
and choice, but about intolerance and priggery. He regarded it as his life's
work to subvert what he called the "rancid solemnities" of the post-war
liberal consensus and its intellectual antecedents.
In Mill and Liberalism (1963) he argued that the true intention of the
liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill was to impose a secular religion to
replace Christianity and that, far from his being an apostle of liberty,
Mill's real aim was totalitarian - to use the state to force-feed everyone
with the dictates of an elitist secular morality.
Cowling's analysis provoked outrage among Mill's defenders and among liberal
intellectuals. So it was hardly surprising that they credited him with being
the eminence grise behind a political leader who demonstrated a similar
distaste for their views. But though Cowling supported her leadership of the
Conservative Party, Margaret Thatcher's ideological brand of Toryism was in
many ways anathema to him.
To Cowling, politics was not about principles but was a game in which the
players are motivated at best by party interest and at worst by
self-interest. In "high politics" (Cowling's phrase) the participants secure
advantage not by espousing the right policies, but by making "corners for
themselves" or finding a "range of rhetoric appropriate to the
In The Nature and Limits of Political Science (1963), Cowling set out to
demonstrate that both political science and political philosophy are
irrelevant to the practice of politics, and argued that too much
philosophising could be an impediment to political action.
He believed that the strength of Conservatism lay not in any particular set
of principles, but in its appeal to a "combination of unashamed materialism
and disbelieving scepticism about the power of political parties to give
effect to Utopia".
To Cowling, the strength of Thatcherism lay not in its "mad-monk Hayekianism
which ignored the constraints of practicality" but in its desire to "shift
the post-war consensus and a populist language". In other words, Mrs
Thatcher succeeded not because her ideas were right, but because "there was
a public sentiment to respond to and she and others had a bag of tricks and
a set of policies to respond".
As an analysis which excluded any concept of public duty, conviction and
good faith, it was not calculated to appeal to Margaret Thatcher herself or
to what Cowling once described as "the intellectual mafia of ex-communists"
who surrounded her during her early years as leader.
But if Cowling's influence with Mrs Thatcher was overstated (he once
described himself as a symptom and not a cause of Thatcherism), he had
considerable influence over some of her more prominent adherents, in
particular Michael Portillo, the Conservative Right-winger who became
Defence Secretary under John Major but lost his seat in the Labour landslide
Portillo had been a pupil of Cowling's at Peterhouse, and despite Cowling's
observation at Portillo's graduation that he would one day make a good
executive in a medium-sized company, Portillo was generous enough to give
Cowling the credit for converting him to Conservatism.
Throughout the leadership crises that beset the Tory Party during the 1990s,
Portillo was often mentioned as Mrs Thatcher's natural heir, sharing her
ideological outlook. Yet those who understood Cowling's views wondered
whether the succession was as natural as it appeared.
"What Cowling taught Michael," remarked one senior Conservative, "is that to
be successful as a politician you need to be astute in responding to
different circumstances as they arise. To regard Michael as a Thatcherite
ideologue through and through is to miss the point."
In 1995, when opinion polls rated Portillo one of the least popular members
of John Major's Cabinet, Cowling predicted that Portillo would survive as he
expressed " by instinct the hopes and fears of Conservatives".
Maurice John Cowling was born on September 6 1926 and educated at Battersea
Grammar School and Jesus College, Cambridge, where he read History. From
1944 to 1948 he served with the British and Indian Armies, becoming a
captain in the Queen's Royal Regiment.
He began his academic career in 1950, but interrupted it in the mid-1950s to
embark on a career in journalism, working first as a leader writer for The
Times. In 1957 he moved to the Daily Express, but after a year in which only
one of his articles was published, Lord Beaverbrook informed him that he was
too much of an old Tory for the newspaper, so he resigned.
This was the first of a series of false starts. Once, when asked to edit a
special number of the monthly The Twentieth Century, he seized the
opportunity to write a diatribe against the influence on international
affairs of David Astor and the Observer. That the piece was never published
was hardly surprising: Astor owned the periodical.
In 1970 Cowling became literary editor of The Spectator, then under the
editorship of George Gale, and he was part of the Bohemian crowd that moved
in and out of Gale's house at Wivenhoe, Essex. Cowling resigned from The
Spectator in 1971 over an article about Princess Anne, published by the
deputy editor in Gale's absence, which began: "Has Princess Anne had sex?".
In 1959 Cowling tried unsuccessfully to persuade the miners of Bassetlaw to
put him into Parliament, standing for the Conservatives against Captain
Frederick Bellenger, who had been War Minister in the first Attlee
Cowling returned to Cambridge in 1961, becoming successively lecturer, then
reader, in Modern History. He was re-elected to a Fellowship at Jesus, then
moved to Peterhouse in 1963.
There was no doubting his popularity with his students. He had a profound
influence not only on politicians such as Michael Portillo and John Biffen,
but also on historians such as John Vincent and Jonathan Clark.
His popularity owed much to his idiosyncratic and irreverent style. He often
conducted supervisions dressed in a green dressing-gown; about favoured
undergraduates he would say, "Ah, he's evil", and he was endlessly indulgent
of their youthful foibles. But there was more to it than that: he possessed
a biting intelligence and could be extremely formidable in personal
At Peterhouse, Cowling enjoyed being a thorn in the side of Lord Dacre of
Glanton (the historian Hugh Trevor-Roper) who - partly through Cowling's
influence - had been elected Master in 1980. He was a founder member of a
college dining club, The Authenticators, nicknamed after Dacre's
authentication of the fake "Hitler Diaries".
Invitations to the club carried a seal reading: "I'd stake my reputation on
it." Dacre was said to have retaliated by comparing Cowling's circle to "a
band of social outcasts living in a mountain cave under the command of a
But none of this deterred Cowling from more serious academic pursuits. In
The Impact of of Labour 1920-1924 (1971), Cowling illustrated his political
philosophy through a detailed study of the politics of the period in which
Labour replaced the Liberals as the alternative party of government to the
The book described in the minutest detail the infighting, personal squabbles
and rivalries that took place, and demonstrated how the Conservative Party's
unerring instinct for power led it cynically to destroy Lloyd George and the
Liberals and identify Socialism as the enemy.
In The Impact of Hitler: British Politics and British Policy, 1933 to 1940
(1975), a typically provocative work, he suggested that Lord Halifax's
disagreement with Chamberlain was motivated by the thought that appeasement
was destroying the chances of the Conservative Party retaining its hold over
the broad centre in politics that it had maintained since 1931. He implied
that Churchill and Eden wanted war for the sake of their careers.
In 1989 he caused controversy when, in a newspaper article entitled "Why we
should not have gone to war", he argued that fighting Hitler was a mistake
because it made Britain socialist; and that Britain was dragged into the war
by liberal moral delusions.
Cowling was not immune to the criticism that, while he excelled at debunking
the beliefs of others, he offered no positive beliefs of his own. But in
Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (three volumes, 1980, 1985
and 2001) he attempted to set out a coherent Christian conservative response
to the modern world as an alternative to the prevailing progressive
doctrines of the age. The result of 20 years' work, it represents a major
statement about the history of religion in England between 1840 and the
Maurice Cowling retired as a fellow of Peterhouse in 1993.
He married, in 1996, Patricia Gale (née Holley), who survives him.
© Copyright of Telegraph Group Limited 2005.
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