Robert Blake was a political historian and biographer of Haig, Bonar Law and Disraeli.
He was born in 1916 and educated at King Edward VI Grammar School in Norwich and Magdalen College, Oxford. During the war he served with the Royal Artillery and was taken prisoner in Italy in 1942. He escaped in 1944 and was mentioned in dispatches.
From 1947-68 he was tutor in politics at Christ Church, Oxford. He then became Provost of Queen’s College, Oxford and from 1971-87 he was pro-vice-chancellor of the university.
From 1980-90 he was joint editor of the Dictionary of National Biography. He was made a life peer in 1971.
I interviewed him in 1998 and he died in September 2003.
Do you believe there is such a thing as historical truth, or is it all a matter of interpretation?
I think there is historical truth in the sense of their being some facts which are certain. For example, one can’t deny that William the Conqueror came over in 1066. But of course there is a great deal of interpretation involved within a framework of fact.
Let me ask the question differently. Is there such a thing as the correct perspective in history?
I doubt if there is, since the perspective is always changing as time goes by. One particularly notices this if one is dealing with very recent history, which I happen to be doing at the moment. I’m trying to update my history of the Conservative Party from 1983, where it ended before, to 1995, but I’m sure that whatever I write, although it may be useful for the time being, may look quite a distortion in ten years’ time.
Gibbon said that history is little other than the register of the crimes, follies and misfortunes of mankind. Would you agree?
I think he was being unduly gloomy about that. Some good things have also happened in history. Gibbon did have a rather sombre and pessimistic view, but one needn’t regard history quite like that. I don’t anyway.
Historians very often say that a knowledge and appreciation of history is essential to an understanding of the present, and yet the empirical evidence would seem to suggest that in fact we learn very little from history. What is your view?
I think we do learn something from history. I don’t believe history repeats itself; particular situations may look alike but there’s usually a difference. There are certain lessons one can learn, however, and certain things which cannot be understood without historical knowledge. All the current arguments about the monarchy, for example, are pretty difficult to understand without some knowledge of how the British monarchy has developed.
Is there perhaps a case for saying that we learn from the historian rather than from history itself? After all, the past has gone, we can’t really know it, and historians are creative people like novelists, making things up, reflecting on the present, but in the context of the past. Is there anything in that?
I think there is. Historians reflecting on the past can certainly help us to understand the present. What I’m against is claiming too much for historians. Although I’ve been a historian most of my life, I find some of them overpitch their claims. There is an inherent interest in understanding the past; that’s all I say.
Do you think history and biography are sisters under the skin…in other words, the greatness of a person’s life is directly related to the response that he makes to the times in which he lives?
I would agree with that, although I wouldn’t go so far as Disraeli who said, ‘Read no history, only biography.’ You cannot understand or assess an important political character in the past without knowing something about the surroundings and atmosphere in which he operated.
You are distinguished biographer of Haig, Bonar Law and Disraeli. I read recently that Edmund White, himself a biographer of the writer Genet, believed that biography is a way which allows little men to take revenge on giants. Is there any truth in that, do you think?
I hope not in my case. There are biographers who are simply in the business of debunking, finding out something discreditable, making the person concerned have feet of clay, and so on. I deplore that kind of biography and it’s certainly not one which I’ve ever engaged in myself. And, of course, you can go to the opposite extreme. There are biographers – many of the famous Victorian biographers were cases in point – who can see no wrong at all in their subject and they start erecting a marble tomb almost. It is possible, however, to have a balanced biography, even of detestable figures in modern history. Alan Bullock, for example, wrote a very good book about Hitler. He gives a rounded picture, while in no way diminishing the odiousness and horror of most of the things that Hitler did.
Your biography of Disraeli is an acknowledged classic. Is that the publication which has brought you most satisfaction?
Yes. I spend eight years on it altogether, and greatly enjoyed doing it because although Disraeli had many defects he was a fascinating figure, and at the time I was writing, between 1958 and 1965 roughly, there really was room for a new biography which would put Disraeli in his proper political context. I think I could say I did achieve that to some extent, and without boasting unduly, I don’t think subsequent biographies of Disraeli, of which there have been quite a number, have really added very much to what I did.
Why do you think that today we have no politicians of the stature of Disraeli?
That’s not at all an easy thing to answer, though I think the fact is true. On the other hand, there are people of immense stature. Margaret Thatcher was very remarkable indeed, and a proper biography of her, which can only be done after she’s no longer with us, could be a very interesting work.
Do you think history and historians will be kinder to Margaret Thatcher than they are to her today?
Yes. They’ll have to recognize a lot of things she achieved, and virtues she had. Hers is one of the most remarkable prime ministerial careers in the twentieth century actually, and historians will look at her in a more rounded and fairer way, while recognizing of course that she did have many defects.
It has sometimes been said that you allow your own political views to colour your writing…does this not detract from the historian’s objectivity?
It does if he allows it to happen, but I don’t think I have actually. I am known to be a Conservative in politics and I’ve never pretended to be otherwise, but I don’t think that made me necessarily unfair to Gladstone, for example. Indeed the Gladstone family were very pleased with my depiction of him and invited me to give an important Gladstone memorial lecture on one occasion. So I think I am reasonably detached in that way.
How much was your own choice of career due to your family background and to the fact that your father was a schoolmaster? Do you feel you owe him a great deal?
I do feel I owe my father a great deal. He was a senior history master at the school I went to, so he actually taught me. My original intention, however, was not to be a historian at all, but to go to the bar. But then the war came and I was in the army for six years, and somehow I had a different perspective after that. Rather out of the blue I was offered the post of politics tutor at Christ Church, and I thought I’d take it on. I’ve never regretted it. I might have made a lot more money if I’d been at the bar, but I’ve got enough.
Did you get on well with your father?
Yes, he was always a very interesting man, with a great sense of humour, and he was always a devotee of history and a very good teacher. Everybody who was taught by him in those years would give testimony to the fact. My mother too – although not an influence to the extent that my father was – was a very affectionate and kind person. She also had a great sense of humour and was fun to talk to. I feel lucky to have had a very happy upbringing.
Do you feel you have influenced your children to the same extent as you yourself were influenced?
You’d have to ask them that, but I like to think I’ve had some influence on them. I have three daughters who are independent and pursue their own courses, and they are, if I may say so, extremely nice and pleasant girls, and very affectionate towards me.
Your academic life has been a great success. Has it been equally important to be successful as a family man?
I’ve never thought of comparing them, but I think it is important to be successful as a family man. I’m probably not the most impartial person on this, but I would say I have been reasonably successful. Of course, I was enormously helped by my wife, who died a year ago; she was really the one who had most influence on my daughters.
Disraeli said that a university should be a place of light and liberty and learning. Does that definition reflect the state of the modern university?
I wish it did. I agree with Disraeli’s definition, but the universities are becoming almost factories for turning out graduates for a future career. The old idea, which I certainly adhere to, of learning for its own sake, because of the inherent interest in it, does seem to be diminishing at the moment, and this is partly because the universities are so underfunded. The university world is not a happy one at all, and in many ways I’m quite glad I’m no longer in it.
There are many who would say that our standards of education have fallen far below those of our European counterparts. Would you agree?
I would, but I agree simply because I’m told this is so. I’m not very knowledgeable about French, German or Italian education systems, but it seems to me widely accepted that the introduction of comprehensive school in Britain has been damaging to the standards of education, substituting a dull mediocrity for bringing out the best in the cleverest and ablest people. There are many signs that the Labour Party, New Labour, is recognizing this for the first time, and it may be that we shall have a bit of reaction against that type of mediocre teaching which was dictated in part by the trendy notions of the 1960s.
Putting it another way, do you think a young student graduating in PPE from Oxford today is likely to be as well educated as you and your fellow students graduating before the war?
Probably yes, because the people who get to Oxford even now are not mediocre boys and girls; they are the cream of the schools. The teaching, at Oxford and Cambridge at any rate, has not gone down. The standards are pretty good, and I would have thought the students to be fairly near to being of the same calibre as we were. It all sounds rather condescending…
During the war you were a prisoner in Italy and made a daring escape when the Germans took over the camp. Does all of that now seem to have happened a lifetime ago, or was that experience so significant that It goes on shaping your life today?
I’ve certainly never forgotten it. It was a very vivid and exciting experience, and I and my two companions who escaped with me were very lucky not to be injured or hurt in any way. We got through to the British outposts of the Eighth Army in Italy in January 1944, and it’s something I shall never forget. But I wouldn’t say it continues to shape my life, since my life as it is today and as it has been for quite a long while would probably not be very different if I’d never escaped at all.
When I interviewed Diana Mosley, she told me that the experience of being interned during the war taught her to hate discomfort above all else…
I would agree with her on the whole, but it’s fair to say that being a prisoner of war of the Italians was not remotely as distressing and grim as being a prisoner of the Japanese. That was not just discomfort, that was extremely painful and unpleasant. My main memory of being a prisoner of war in Italy was boredom and never really having quite enough to eat. But there were books in the camp, and I read the whole of Gibbon and all Shakespeare’s plays, and I read the Bible from beginning to end. I don’t think I’d have done any of those things if I hadn’t been a prisoner of war, so there were possibly some countervailing advantages.
Your war service was completed at MI6 where you worked under Kim Philby…presumably you suspected nothing?
Absolutely nothing. I knew him quite well, liked him, he was charming to talk to, with a rather engaging stutter, very amusing, good company. Very few suspected anything at all.
When you discovered that Philby was a secret agent, did that make you think that the basis for recruiting people in those days was seriously flawed? Didn’t it tend to be done on the strength of ‘there’s this chap I know…’?
I think one should recognize that Philby was a very exceptional case, but the method of recruitment was pretty uncertain to say the least. Too many people were recruited at the bar of Whites. It was very haphazard.
You once contemplated a safe seat in the House of Commons but claimed you were too lazy. Have you ever regretted the decision not to become an MP?
No, and considering what goes on now in the House of Commons, I regret it even less. It’s been a very agreeable consolation prize, which I never expected, to be a member of the House of Lords. It is a much more enjoyable place than House Commons.
What does it mean to be a Conservative nowadays?
I would define it by negatives. One of the things that made me firmly a Conservative was that I disliked a great deal about Labour. I still believe the Conservatives are a preferable alternative to Labour.
Given that the Labour Party has changed its leadership and Blair looks very different from the others – even Margaret Thatcher seems to think he’s all right – has that altered your view?
Blair has given a very remarkable performance, and he has made a lot of people feel that a change wouldn’t be so dangerous for their values as it would have been when Labour was dominated by a very left-wing clique. I would never have believed that Labour could change to the extent it has. But it remains to be seen how far it really has changed. But he has achieved a great deal, and ironically he has fulfilled Margaret Thatcher’s objective. She always said, ‘My purpose is to destroy socialism’, and the new Labour Party has certainly taken over a great many of the things which the Conservatives were propagating and maintaining in the 1980s. Having said all that, I would never desert the Conservative party. New Labour is an improvement, but I would still prefer to stay where I am, and I should say at once that I’m a great admirer of John Major. He is a remarkable and tenacious prime minister and he’s much more formidable than people recognize. His chances of winning the next election are pretty slim, but I wouldn’t rule it out altogether. A great deal can happen in politics in a very short time.
But you’re almost a lonely voice in that respect. I mean, John Major does lack charisma…
He lacks charisma, yes, but that isn’t necessarily fatal. I always think of Bonar Law who was a very successful leader of the Conservative party, and he had no charisma whatsoever. But he was respected and trusted, and he was intelligent and quick in his mind. Another man I would compare John Major with even more closely is Stanley Baldwin; and he didn’t have much charisma either.
The problem with that argument is that in those days politicians were not exposed on television, or even in the newspapers to the same extent. You do need charisma today to win elections.
That is the big difference, I agree, and undoubtedly this is a difficulty which John Major faces. But it may not be insuperable.
As a Conservative you are presumably naturally sympathetic to authority and institutions. When authority and institutions are shown to be negligent, does that also undermine conservatism?
I think it does to some degree. The Scott Report has been damaging to the Conservative party. I say this without having read it, but I read the debates in both Houses of Parliament, and although I think the enquiry was flawed in many ways, the general impression that Whitehall was not working as it should has got out, and this is undoubtedly damaging to the Conservatives. It has given a general impression of incompetence and cover up.
But nobody paid the price for it.
That is perfectly true, nobody did. I think it was more incompetence than plotting, but they got away with it. My own view, if one was going into detail, is that William Waldegrave didn’t do anything outrageous, but the Attorney-General actually ought to have resigned.
Where do you stand on the question of the monarchy? There now seems to be a real feeling in the country at large that it is an expensive and undignified anachronism…
I don’t take that view myself, and how far the country at large really does take that view, I don’t know either. There’s no doubt that the activities of the Royal Family have been damaging to the monarchy, but one has to remember that the monarchy really comes down to the Queen, and nobody has anything against the Queen. She has behaved impeccably, and her constitutional role has never been criticized. For that reason I believe the monarchy is not in any immediate danger. I also believe that Prince Charles will succeed to the throne. I don’t agree with the theories that he may abdicate or be pushed out in favour of his elder son. His whole life has been built on the assumption that he would eventuality succeed as king, and I think he will succeed as king, and I don’t myself believe there’s republican feeling of any strength in Britain. There have been many periods in the past when the monarchy has been pretty unpopular. For example, it was only right at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, after her Golden and Diamond Jubilees, that she gained any degree of popularity. The monarchy doesn’t depend on temporary popularity and opinion polls; it would take real revolutionary sentiment to convert Britain from a monarchy into a republic. Historically when monarchies have disappeared it’s nearly always been through defeat in war, or an actual revolution like the French Revolution; they have very seldom just petered out.
As a member of the House of Lords, do you find the principle of an unelected body of legislators difficult to defend?
On grounds of logic it is very difficult to defend and nobody beginning from scratch would create a body like the House of Lords, a large of whom are there by virtue of descent and not inheritance. The hereditary system is difficult to defend except on the argument that there are a lot of hereditary peers who are very able and sensible and make good speeches. My own feeling is that it would be better to leave the House of Lords as it stands, because its powers are very limited; if it had a lot of power, that would be a different matter, but it’s really essential as amending chamber and hardly ever throws out legislation. It would certainly not be a good situation to have the House of Lords as a giant quango, consisting solely of life peers like myself.
There is still a climate of secrecy in government. Is this something you support?
I think I do. I may be prejudiced having worked in MI6, but I am very conscious that there are some things which governments simply cannot reveal. You cannot conduct diplomacy or foreign policy or trade policy in a goldfish bowl; it can’t be done. This isn’t to say that we couldn’t go a bit more in the direction of open government than we have – I think we should – but government can never be completely open. It will never be as open as the opposition will invariably want it to be at any one time, but that true with governments all over the world. The Americans, in spite of the freedom of information act, are very secretive about some things, particularly trade policy.
After the heavy Conservative defeat in 1966 you advised your party to sit tight and avoid damaging divisions within the ranks. What would be your advice to them today, if they are to avoid defeat at the next election?
I would give the same advice to a large extent. I’d put it like this: the Conservative party has been defeated even when it’s been united on occasions, but if it is disunited, it is always defeated. This is perhaps true of political parties generally, but it is especially true of the Conservative party. The great danger for them is Europe. I can see a split coming in the party almost as bad as the one that occurred in the days of Balfour and led to a tremendous Liberal victory. Whether unity is achievable given the attitudes of the party at present I don’t know, but that certainly would be my main advice.
When you look at the member of the cabinet today, can you honestly say that they have the statesmanlike qualities of those in the past, even a generation or two ago?
No, I think the quality of politicians has declined. I’m not all clear why it has, or what we can do to remedy the situation, but I’ve lived long enough to see that although, of course, there have been plenty of mediocre cabinet ministers in the past, the general standard was much higher. The same people don’t go into politics nowadays; there are a lot of other avenues they can go into to fulfil their ambitions. There is a noticeable shortage of good lawyers in politics, and the reason for that is that you can’t combine a career at the bar and a career in Parliament at all easily, whereas you could in the days of F. E. Smith and Carson. Also they ought to be paid more. I have never shared the view, based on envy, that we shouldn’t pay politicians more because there are plenty of people ready to do the job for the current pay. I think they should be paid about double what they get, about sixty or seventy thousand a year.
You said back in 1966 that the great Conservative victories have usually occurred because the radicals, whether Liberal or Labour, have made a hash of things. ‘Historically, what is encouraging about the matter is that they very often do make a hash of things’ to your own party perhaps?
I fear I would. At the moment that is just what may happen. New Labour, at least ostensibly, appears united, and the Conservatives, while they haven’t exactly made a terrible hash, have given a general impression of hanging on too long.
Over twenty years ago in an article in the Guardian you suggested that pulling troops out of Northern Ireland and ceasing to defend the union was not an absolute impossibility. You said, ‘The Conservative party must be extremely careful not to get into the situation where it is the only party defending the principle of British troops in Ulster because of traditional views about the union.’ What is your view now?
To withdraw troops from Ulster now would be courting disaster. I would be against that. There would be a major backbench revolt in Parliament apart from anything else, and Labour wouldn’t back withdrawal either. My feeling is that things have moved a lot since 1966 as far as Ireland is concerned, so I would to some extent eat my words.
Do you think the peace process is unlikely to succeed?
I hope very much it will succeed, and I’m absolutely convinced that John Major is quite right to try. But if you’re in parliamentary democracy where the ordinary rules of freedom and liberty apply, it is very difficult to combat a small group of fanatical terrorists who are prepared to murder and kill innocent people for the sake of a cause which they will never achieve.
Is there anything in life you would like still to achieve?
I have reached the age of seventy-nine, so I’ve got to do it fairly quickly. What I would like to do is to write a sensible book about the British monarchy, a subject on which an awful lot of nonsense is written. Although I am pro-monarchist, I’m not a starry-eyes adulator of monarchs; I am very well aware of the defects and errors. Oxford University Press wants me to do a history of the British monarchy from the ascension of Queen Victoria to the present day. That will be enough to be going on with.
Disraeli said: ‘Youth is a blunder, Manhood a struggle, Old Age a regret…’ Have you found it thus?
I’m not sure that I agree about youth being a blunder. I don’t think I made any very good blunders when I was young. I’ve had to struggle a bit in manhood. Old age a regret? No, I’ve had a happy old age.