Maurice Cowling

Maurice Cowling was born in 1926 and was educated at Battersea Grammar School and Jesus College, Cambridge, of which he was a fellow between 1950 and 1953.

After short periods in the Foreign Office and on the editorial staffs of The Times and the Daily Express he returned to Cambridge where he was a fellow of Jesus again between 1961 and 1963. Since then he was a fellow of Peterhouse.

He contested the constituency of Bassetlaw as a Conservative candidate in the 1959 general election. In 1970 he was literary editor of the Spectator. In 1989 he was visiting professor of religion at Columbia University.

His works include The Nature and Limits of Political Science, Mill and Liberalism, Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution, The Impact of Labour, The Impact of Hitler and Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England.

I interviewed him in 1990 and he died in August 2005.

Your early career was quite varied – Foreign Office, The Times, the Daily Express. How did you come to move between these worlds and then into academic life? 

I moved not from them to academic life, but to them from academic life. The thing that motivated me from the start was falling in love with Cambridge when I got there in 1943, deciding that I wasn’t ever going to leave. I was a research fellow in the early 1950s, but then I didn’t get a permanent job. I was determined not to be a lecturer in Hull (or Reading), and that decided me. If I couldn’t stay in Cambridge (or Oxford) I’d go to London. That’s why I tried to become a journalist, then went to the Foreign Office. If I couldn’t be in Cambridge or Oxford, I’d be in London, not Hull or Reading.

I’ve heard it said that you once felt a vocation and began to study for the priesthood. 

It’s not true. That was in the Sunday Telegraph recently. I was never studying for the priesthood at all. I read history as an undergraduate, and thought of being ordained, but decided before there was ever any question of going to theological college that I wouldn’t.

The Cambridge I fell in love with was an ecclesiastical university, but by 1943, of course, Cambridge wasn’t an ecclesiastical university. I was trying to find a role for myself and being a clergyman seemed to be one of the possibilities. If you ask me whether I was deeply Christian, the answer is that I went to a college chapel and had a strong polemical Christianity. Maybe there was something there that could have been built on, but I’m profoundly grateful I wasn’t ordained because the sort of social and intellectual reason that I had for being ordained is ultimately unsatisfactory; and I’m not sure of the depth of reality of my religious conviction. It could well be that it was a polemical conviction against liberalism rather than a real conviction of the truth of Christianity.

What was it that attracted you to the study of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries? 

Because I was teaching it is one answer. The other answer is that what interested me were the relations between religion, politics and thought. I’ve always believed for as long as I can remember that something happened between 1800 and today which is important for understanding the present. Both things in fact operated to make me interested in that period.

What do you see as the main reasons for the professional study of history? Do people learn from the past in any real sense? 

I’m an anti-professional don. I strongly disbelieve in and dislike the idea of an historical profession, which is a twentieth-century invention. Historians should be people who, like most of the historians, are reflecting upon the nature of society in general, on religion, thought and politics. History happens to be the form their reflections are given. I don’t think anyone learns from the past in the sense in which you use the expression, because what historians do is make up the past out of the material they have to hand. Any good historian’s past is an embodiment of what he believes about the present. So it’s not that you learn from the past, it’s that you learn from the historians.

I place a very great emphasis on the inventiveness and creativity of historians in making the past up. We don’t know the past; it’s gone. The greater the historian, the wider the range and depth of consideration of the central problems of religion, politics, thought, economic activity; and also the greater the synthesizing capability. Therefore historians, just like philosophers or critics or novelists, have to be understood as contributing to general reflection about the present, though in their case they express themselves through the past. To think in terms of learning from the past is philosophically wrong. The difference between an historian worth attending to and one who isn’t is the depth of his or her understanding of the nature of these questions.

Can there ever be objective truth in history? 

The truth rhetoric is not one I like using at all. As I just said, what the historian does is take the material that is present and make the past that he wants to make and that he thinks is plausible. Obviously truth comes into it in the sense that there can be a misrepresentation of the material, and other historians will tell you if you misrepresent it, but it seems to me that historical writing is a free activity; objectivity is not a useful concept. All there is is the possibility of innumerable statements, made necessary to the historian by his perception of everything that comes under the central body of subjects I term public doctrine. Obviously historians are biased. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t be. Other people will correct them. It’s a pluralistic activity.

I hope there isn’t such a thing as a historian free from bias. Macaulay regarded Hallam as the most impartial historian he had ever read, but nobody would agree. Hallam was a manifest Whig with a point of view – a point of view which gave great strength to his historical writing. Of course there are inaccurate historians, but the only sense in which you can usefully employ the rhetoric of truth is that a historian should succeed, without being inaccurate, in conveying to the reader a truth about the position he is holding, I do emphasize in this sense – far too much no doubt – the subjectivity of truth. All one can do when confronted by historical writing is to empathize with it and understand it, accept it or reject it according to whether or not the historian’s general conception of the nature of social and human activity is congenial to you. I not only don’t believe in the objectivity of historical truth, I don’t believe there’s any problem about it either.

You taught as a visiting professor of religion at Columbia University. Do you yourself profess a particular religion? 

I suppose on a census I would describe myself as a member of the Church of England. If you ask me, do I think I ought to be an Anglican, the answer is that I probably ought to be a Roman Catholic, but I don’t see any prospect of that happening. It all depends on a rhythm in writing and thinking. Up to the time I was in my late thirties I didn’t know what I thought at all, about politics or, except for the early Anglican period, about religion. Writing Mill and Liberalism, Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution, The Impact of Labour, The Impact of Hitler and Religion and Public Doctrine were ways of demonstrating to myself on paper how far I’d got. The position is that I haven’t yet got to the point at which I know what I ought to conclude, and working it out on paper is a necessary process that isn’t yet completed.

I’m not saying at all that I couldn’t become a Roman Catholic. What I’m saying at the moment is that I feel quite a large part of the time that I ought to be a Roman Catholic. If you ask me whether it’s likely that I’m going to become a Roman Catholic, that’s a very different question – I have a very Protestant mind – and one for which I have no answer.

Is it possible to teach religion as an academic subject without seeming to try to shift or undermine the actual faith that students may have as Moslems or Buddhists, say, if the lecturer is an Anglican or a Roman Catholic, for example? 

It’s very subtle the matter, the relationship between teachers and pupils, whether it’s lecturing, tutorial (in the Oxford sense) or supervision (in the Cambridge sense). I don’t think it’s necessary to assume that a teacher will serve the interests of the pupil by proselytizing. There’s a very subtle line between propaganda and critical exposition, but I’m sure it’s possible to draw the line between the two. An Anglican or Roman Catholic, or indeed anyone else, may sometimes be teaching in a way which has nothing to do with his religion, that is to say, he may be teaching in the manner of the academic generation to which he belongs. What is more, every teacher exudes his or her own atmosphere, which isn’t the same thing as instruction or indoctrination; it may just be a way of putting whatever it is that one’s talking about, and may not necessarily issue in commitment or engagement to any particular religion or church or opinion. But there’s obviously a problem.

England often seems to be regarded as the least religiously minded country in Europe. Given that religion so often seems to be a compensation for poverty and therefore unlikely to flourish in an affluent society, could it ever be possible to revive real religious feelings here today? Christ thought it was very hard for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 

I thought the poor had difficulties as well. So do suburban nations, of which ours is one. The least religious in Europe? That’s true in a sense, but it depends how you regard post-Christian sentiments, which are strongly and deeply entrenched in England, and especially liberal sentiments. If you regard them as part of a religion without creeds and without specific performance, then I would say that the English are, even now, fairly moralistic and are, in a secular sense, a religious nation. They are not now a religious nation in the sense of being ecclesiastical performers. The question really is whether these post Christian sentiments and opinions, of which there are many in England as there are in all the nations of the modern world, are to be regarded as religion, or whether we are to regard their prevalence as evidence that the religious period of English history is over.

I tend on the whole to think that they are to be understood as a form of religion or substitute-religion. That’s why I slightly take issue with you. They run very deep in the English mind, and in that sense England is certainly full of pieties and maybe you could even say full of religion.

My perception of the British Isles as a whole is that the Roman Catholic religion is very evident. 

In its practices.

Is that because it’s a minority do you think? 

Well, some of it is converted, and that is likely to be associated with observance. Some of it is Irish, and that is also to be associated with observance. It may be because it’s a minority, but I don’t really think that is the main reason.

Is it, then, because Roman Catholicism is a much more disciplined religion than the Anglican? 

No. What needs to be explained is not particularly why Roman Catholics go to church, but why Protestants don’t. Somehow the gut seems to have gone out of the English Protestantism. It’s turned into these post-Christian moralistic sentiments. It doesn’t involve or insist on observance, but it may be that the body of sentiment is just as deep as ever it was when it did ask for observance.

But wouldn’t you agree that in an affluent society there is likely to be less religion than in a poor society? 

Empirically that’s probably true. I don’t really see why it should be so. This isn’t exactly an affluent society; it’s a suburban society we live in primarily, and I don’t think any church has managed to address the problem of maintaining religion in a suburban society. Being affluent is part of it, but it’s not only that, it’s also the frame of mind. I can’t really put a finger on it, but I’m sure the problem is that a suburban society has conventions and understandings which haven’t really been resolved in terms of public religion.

But isn’t temptation harder or stronger in an affluent society? If you’re rich, you’re tempted to do things that are not perhaps very Christian? 

Oh, I don’t really think that’s true. The temptation to abandon religion is not really correlatable to the opportunities for doing something else, but correlatable to the frame of mind in which everything that anybody can do is viewed. It’s perfectly possible for the rich to be deeply ascetic. There are rich ascetics.

I admit that there is some sense in which affluence makes the observance of a difficult religion more difficult. But if you want to explain why there is less religion more difficult. But if you want to explain why there is less religion in affluent societies than in poor ones – if that indeed is true – then you have to look at the education being given to affluent societies as well as their affluence. It seems to me to relate to the education and development of the intellectual life of a society quite as much as to the affluence itself. If you’re talking about English religion, the most affluent of English societies was Victorian society, and there was undoubtedly a deep and strong revival of religion in Victorian England which was associated with affluence. There was almost an identity of timing between the affluence and the revival of religion, so that is not a good example.

You once stood as Conservative candidate in a safe Labour seat. What decided you not to persevere in trying to enter Parliament? 

I enjoyed being a candidate, though it was very hard work and elections are like what I imagine having all your teeth out is like. It was simply that I decided in about 1960 or 1961 that I wanted t write a lot of books and at that time I hadn’t written any. The main thing was to live in Cambridge, settle down and write, which I did. I didn’t feel that I was going to get into Parliament, but I half-though that t would be better to write books. In any case, I’d always taught at least six hours a week in Cambridge – in supervision – ever since 1950, even when I was in London. That’s what I wanted to do primarily, and all the rest, the Foreign Office, journalism, certainly standing for Parliament – was really a retreat because I hadn’t got a permanent academic job. As soon as I got such a job in Cambridge, I had no desire to go on my travels again.

I’m still politically interested without being active in any party sense, I’m an intellectual Thatcherite, just as I was an intellectual Powellite, and I think it’s important that the Conservative party should be in good hands and that it should win elections.

But as an academic historian, don’t you sometimes feel at least some ambivalence towards the present government, which on the face of it has shown an attitude bordering on contempt for non-vocational education?

I don’t feel any ambivalence towards the present government, of which I am a warm supporter. The only thing I would say is that when Mrs Thatcher came in in 1979, then the government ought to have grasped the nettle and abolished half a dozen academic universities, or expanded the vocational side of universities and reduced the academic side. I believe the academic community is too big. I’m rather unusual in believing this, but I do. There is a great overlap between academic studies and vocational studies, even in academic universities, but basically the academic community is too big and the nettle ought to have been grasped. It’s because it wasn’t that we are in the mess we’re in now. They really did not face the logic of their own belief.

What do you think ‘the idea of university’ is, to use Cardinal Newman’s phrase? 

I think what dons should do in an academic university, or a college as I prefer to call it, is a combination of maintaining scholarship and learning, teaching undergraduates as directly as possible, and writing. If you ask me what is the use of that, the answer is that it hasn’t necessarily any immediate use, and that’s why the institution shouldn’t be very big – because it is a strange thing for young men and women to be subjected to, and not everybody is suited for it, and it’s not good for everybody. So what I believe is that those who constitute an academic university have a duty to learning and scholarship, to teaching and writing. It’s a self-regarding activity, and so it should be.

You’ll notice that I say ‘a college’. There are many universities in the world in which the only institution is the university and its faculties. In Cambridge and Oxford in my view the university is not the primary institution, except where it is the laboratory, is the college.

Why does a small proportion of the British population go on to higher education as compared with France and Germany? 

The reason is because the usefulness of higher education is not immediately apparent. Higher education ought to be directly vocational over a very wide area of its operation, and the ore directly vocational it is, the more certainly it will attract those who might not engage in it. But they ought to engage in it; it’s useful to them to do so.

A lot of people notice that, for an industrial or advanced country, Britain’s management education is very behind that of Europe and Japan. 

Yes, but that’s because it’s been assumed for a very long time in England that an academic education is superior. Now, I’m not saying it is superior; I am saying it’s a very good thing in itself but not suited to everybody. It can be damaging to some people, and there ought to be higher esteem given to vocational education. The higher esteem that is given it, the more likely it is to be attractive to large numbers of people.

It has been something of a lie’s campaign for you to attack liberalism, which you see as inextricably linked with authoritarianism. Are you saying that liberalism is really a cloak for hypocrisy? 

Yes. There’s a phrase I quote from Sir Edwin Hoskyns at the beginning of Mill and Liberalism about how ‘the liberal is not only convinced that he is right, but is also convinced that other people secretly agree with him’. I’ve never had any desire to use liberal language. When I was a schoolboy I read a lot of Carlyle and a lot of Belloc. I know that Belloc was radical, but his language was not liberal language but a sort of reactionary Catholicism. And Carlyle, in religious terms, was a liberal, but in political terms was obviously not. And that’s just stuck with me. Liberal language has never attracted me and it assumes a higher rectitude in human conduct than I suppose to be normal. And since it assumes a higher level of human rectitude than normal, it’s very misleading as an understanding of the way in which men behave socially, or indeed individually – but particularly socially and politically. I wouldn’t mind if liberalism was just a cloak for hypocrisy. The problem is the people who believe it. They’re much worse than the ones who don’t. Hypocrisy seems to me to be a very minor evil and very necessary for the world. But very large numbers of people actually believe in liberal sentiment, liberal assumptions and liberal ways of thinking. It’s not hypocrisy at all; it’s self-deception.

Examples of those I regard as liberal would be Isaiah Berlin, for one, or David Astor. David Astor is actually the better example. When he was editor of the Observer there was an assumption that somehow all good men where men of good will; that there was a correlation between good intentions and good consequences; that the desire of all men and women to be in harmony with all other men and women and total self-development for everyone were somehow achievable without the difficulties which are inseparable from all political activity. Liberalism is essentially the belief that there can be a reconciliation of all difficulties and differences, and since there can’t, it is a misleading way to approach politics.

The most important feature of political activity is precisely that interests and opinions are in conflict; that people do not mean the same thing when they say different things. Yet the liberal wishes to believe that, when people say different things or are pursuing divergent interests, they are somehow saying the same thing or pursuing the same interest. It isn’t the case, and once you’ve recognized it isn’t the case, then your politics are going to be more realistic than if you believe that it is the case. There you are. There’s liberalism in a nutshell for you.

Your book on John Stuart Mill seems to postulate the idea that Mill wanted to substitute a ‘secular’ religion for orthodox Christianity. Why exactly would that be so objectionable? The story of orthodox Christianity has not always been a kindly or a happy one. 

That book was published in 1963 and was really written out of the frame of mind I was in between 1944 and 1950. To me then it was self-evident that the attempt to rid the world of orthodox Christianity was bad and wrong. I wrote the book in order to point out that, when you replace Christianity by what Mill would have replaced it with, you’re not replacing something contentious by something self-evidently true, but replacing something contentious by something equally contentious. What I was drawing attention to in Mill was the claim that liberalism was what all reasonable men would really believe if they were thinking reasonably. That is a highly contentious claim. Between Christianity and the post-Christian religion that Mill was propagating, there is an incompatibility and conflict. It’s not just a case of something self-evidently wrong being replaced by something self-evidently right.

In other words, what I was trying to say was, first, that liberalism is not as bland as it pretends to be, and secondly, that in relation to historic Christianity the founders of modern English liberalism – not only Mill but a lot of other thinkers as well – were not being bland and self-evident but contentious and controversial. Christians have, on the whole been on the defensive over the last two hundred years – certainly in England for the last hundred years. What I simply wanted to do was to put liberalism on the defensive as well.

You speak at one point of that low-key respectability which is the real religion of the English people. Are you included in that? 

No, I’m an amused observer of the English people. Like you.

Seriously. 

There is a difficulty about this. What I believe in politically, I suppose, is a low-key hard line: respectable, faintly nasty edged, but also accommodating. In other words, Conservatism. That seems to me really to be what the Conservative party has usually stood for. There’s been a change in the Conservative party during the past ten of fifteen years, but what I believe in is a bedrock of conservative feeling. I believe it’s there in large numbers of Conservative voters, and used to be, and may still be, in large numbers of Labour voters. That seems to me to be a really good thing, and since you try to identify me with it, I’m happy to endorse the identification.

If you feel with Dr Norman and Enoch Powell that Christianity is not primarily a social doctrine, what value can it have at all beyond its use as a managerial weapon on the pie-in-the-sky principle? 

Now you’re giving me a real reductionism about religion, and I reject it. At the very least, in England and Europe Christianity has historically been a very important and independent part of public thinking, and isn’t to be reduced to the class struggle at all. It’s a matter of conviction, of opinion, of belief, and is not reducible to anything else.

Let me provoke you further. The unsympathetic will surely see your view of Christianity as a call to repentance and as a way of avoiding social responsibilities. 

Three answers. First, the application of Christ’s perceptions is a complicated and long-term business, and it is not to be expected that they will be translatable into the easy formulae of policy or parliamentary or party exchange. Secondly, I’m not calling anybody to repentance. My books, except for Mill and Liberalism, which is a long time ago, are in no sense persuasions to any form of belief. What I had to say about Christianity there I wouldn’t, indeed, say in any form now.

Thirdly, a point that arises from my first book, The Nature and Limits of Political Science, which came about six months before Mill and Liberalism. This was an attack on political science as it was in the 1960s when it had by and large a practical purpose – usually a liberal or socialist purpose. What The Nature and Limits of Political Science said was that academic subjects shouldn’t have political purposes, and that, when they did, they were demeaning to the academic function. In a way, I still half believe that it is impossible in any humane study actually to detach engagement and commitment from explanation.

In fact the account of what an historian is doing which I gave you a little time ago is a complete reversal of The Nature and Limits of Political Science. In the conditions of the 1960s, when what we’ll call in shorthand terms of Liberalism or Lib-Labbism was in the ascendant in this country, it seemed a very good argument against Lib-Lab political science to say that it wasn’t explanatory but was engaged or committed. But I have changed my view almost diametrically because I now really believe that engagement and commitment are unavoidable.

You have argued very persuasively for conservative values over the years, but the practice as opposed to the theory seems to involve poverty at the level of living in cardboard boxes and begging into the streets. 

I wouldn’t say I’ve argued for ‘conservative values’ over the years. Intellectually, I believe in a broad conservatism. Politically, I didn’t have any connection with any political party until the mid 1950s, in addition to having an intellectual opinion which is independent of my party-political opinions. I’ve also been a defender and proponent, in my own deviant way, of the Conservative party – which is not the same thing as ‘conservative values’.

As for living in cardboard boxes and all that, it happens under socialism as well as under a free market economy. But we haven’t got a free market economy. We’ve still got a mixed market economy. And though a good deal has been done since 1979 to desocialize the mixed economy, it is still a mixed economy. Obviously no one wants poverty or anyone living in cardboard boxes, but the argument is – and it may turn out that they are discovering this in Eastern Europe – that a free market economy is better as a cure for poverty than a controlled socialist economy.

Do you see any dangers in the changes in society which are attributable to Mrs Thatcher and her form of government? 

What are the attributable changes?

Hasn’t Mrs Thatcher changed our society radically? 

I don’t think she has. Both Thatcherites and anti-Thatcherites wish to maintain that she has made fundamental changes. She has made some changes in government, in political policies, in the perception and the social constitution of the Conservative party. There is a slightly greater economic toughness in the public mind than there was when she arrived, but when you say she has transformed our society, I don’t believe it.

Well, we used to pride ourselves in Europe, and particularly in this country, on the fact that although money was important to us, it wasn’t everything in life. Now Mrs Thatcher has created what could be called the new spiv in our society, someone bereft of culture and motivated only by money ad self-aggrandizement. 

But everybody said the same about Macmillan. It’s not a debating point I’m making, but a real point. It was even said about the 1951 government that they had given the opportunity to the spiv and estate developers. This will be sad whenever there is a loosening of government economic control, but what you’re saying about today just isn’t true. Public schools, for example, are fuller than ever and more people want to go to them than ever before, and whatever public schools do turn out, it isn’t spivvery that is being aimed at on the whole. The yuppy is really a function of the immense increase in property values in the south of England. There are a very large numbers of people who feel much richer because of the inflation of house values as compared with the rest of inflation. It’s a very complicated thing and is not all to do with Mrs Thatcher or the present government. All she has done is marginally to reverse the frame of mind which believes in the desirability of governmental involvement in the economy. If that has enabled a lot of people to make money, it seems to me entirely unobjectionable, and one can’t tell what the effect will be. It seems to me just propaganda to identify that process or the decision to reduce the taxation of wealth with spivvery. It isn’t the case that the alleviation of taxation has been a licence for spivvery.

But moral values in the City are not as high as they used to be. 

I’m not an authority on moral values in the City. If what you’re describing is the case, I don’t think it’s to be attributed mainly to Mrs Thatcher or to this or any government. Anyway, I’m not sure that what you say is happening is happening.

To many it must look as if what the new Conservatives really want is a mini America, but they do not seem to want to pay that part of the price which requires freedom of the press and access to government information. 

I don’t believe there are Conservatives that want an American economic system here. What this government has done since 1979 is comparatively limited when you consider the vast structure of governmental activity that is still operating. We still have a mixed economy, and although Mrs Thatcher is as a rhetorician is a new market Conservative she is also a responsible party leader. We aren’t anywhere near an American economy and I don’t believe it is a thing that needs to be considered as a matter of practice.

In any case, there’s no reason why a free market economy should entail alterations in the Official Secrets Act. The two things are not connected. I don’t know whether there is too much secrecy in government here or not. There is a long tradition of secrecy in the interests of national security, and no doubt it can be abused. I don’t know whether it is being abused or not. But there is absolutely no connection between a market economy and the liberalization of the Official Secrets Act – none whatever. 

Mrs Thatcher seems adamant that we should know less and less about what’s going on in government. 

I honestly don’t believe that’s true. I don’t feel it as a citizen, so to speak.

They have a go every so often at the BBC. 

The BBC has been one of the whipping boys of Conservative sentiment as long as I can remember, back to the 1940s and 1950s. There’s nothing unusual in that, you know.

With regard to what you call ‘a conservative moral order’, you say that apart from the need for intellectual argument there is an equal need for what you call ‘tone and posture’. Can this tone and posture ever be anything more than theatricality? 

There is a low-key, hard minded conservative posture which is of fundamental importance in English life, particularly in English politics. It embodies a real judgement of what is politically and morally possible, feasible and desirable. It’s not full of large expectations. It’s not Utopian in mind or attention. It assumes that the world is a difficult world and that there are some things which can be done and many things which can’t; in other words, it operates with limited expectations. That seems to me to be entirely admirable and not theatrical at all. I think Mrs Thatcher is going through a bad patch, and I’m not saying that part of the Labour party aren’t capable of embodying the same limited expectations. Certainly if Dennis Healey had ever been leader of the Labour party, that is exactly what Labour would have embodied. It’s the expression of a very genuine and very deep mistrust of high-flown humbugging windbagging politics and morality. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?

In your preface to Conservative Essays, you wrote that the Conservative party would have to promote a sense of history and cohesion among the people. Is that possible any longer, with so many conflicting ethnic and religious minorities? 

There is a difficulty about ethnic minorities, but in the same way that many Scots, Irish and Welshman have become assimilated to England within England, and Englishmen assimilated in Scotland, Wales and so on, so, I think, will a lot of ethnic immigrants be assimilated. Some will remain in ethnic communities and some will not, but there are various ways in which a nation can be governed, and immigration, once it has happened, doesn’t seem to me to be fatal to a political system operating. As to the question of moral solidarity and cohesion, we’ll need to see how things develop over fifty years, but obviously there is a difficulty.

One of the things that the Moslems, for example, are likely to lose if they assimilate is their religion. Assimilation can be the destruction of a religion, and that may happen, probably is happening, to some Moslems. I don’t know whether it is good that it should. On the whole, I’m not keen on the idea of ethnic groups operating as ethnic groups, but I can see that if they don’t, they will lose some of their features in a way which, if I were a Moslem, I would think undesirable.

You ask me whether I share Enoch Powell’s view on immigration, and I have to say that depends on what you mean by Enoch Powell’s view. I regarded the substance of what he said in the 1960s – though not the rhetoric that he used – as being on the whole right. I’ve been surprised at the extent to which the situation hasn’t turned out violently. In some places, of course, there has been a lot of violence. How long it will be before one can tell whether or not the level of immigration has been a bad thing is very difficult to say. It depends on what the relations are between the immigrants themselves and the rest of the community over a span of twenty or thirty years, and it’s not clear yet.

In your recent new preface to Mill and Liberalism, you say that the contradictions produced by immigration were exemplified from a ‘tolerable’ point of view in the case of the Bradford headmaster, Ray Honeyford, but from an ‘odious’ one in the case of Salman Rushdie. 

I’ve read The Satanic Verses and I thought it a nasty, sneering, free-thinking book. I’m not in favour of Moslems executing death threats or using violence, and they have to observe the law when they’re here, but I can understand why the book is offensive and it didn’t seem to me to be anything but offensive when I read it. Some thinking Moslems take a view of the nature of religion, at the incompatibility between Islam and liberalism, which runs parallel to what I’m saying in Mill and Liberalism, and that’s why I mentioned Rushdie in that way.

Your way of interpreting history sometimes seems to arouse great antagonism among fellow historians. A reviewer recently wrote: ‘The real subject is not the assault on Christianity, but Maurice Cowling’s assaults on practically everybody’, and accused you of anti-intellectualism, fuelled by a moral crusade. Do such accusations hurt you? 

I couldn’t stop laughing when I read that. I don’t know what the animus is, but there must be some. All my critic was accusing me of was exactly what I was saying about ten minutes ago that historians always have done. I think he is a professor at the University of Minnesota, and I am deeply grateful to him.

I believe in answering attacks, but I do find it very difficult to be in any way emotionally injured by them. On the other hand, I do depend on having access to a correspondence column. You’ll find there’s a lot of stuff of mine littered about in correspondence columns over the years.

As for being on a moral crusade, no, no, no. I spent the first twenty years of my adult life knowing that I wanted to say something but not knowing what for to say it in, and really not knowing, as it were, which profession to say it through. In the end I found first the form of two polemical books, then three political books, and after that the religious books, which will go on a bit longer. The thing that has to be understood about me is that I’m really very insulated. I have contemporaries from whom I’ve learned a lot, and obviously older people from whom I’ve learned a lot, but there aren’t many of them. Really I’ve been doing what I want to do now for twenty years, and I truthfully don’t care about criticism, thought I do like to answer back.

Who influenced you in your life? 

There was the history master in my sixth form who had been sending people to Jesus College, Cambridge, for fifteen years, so it was perfectly natural to expect to go to Cambridge. I don’t think the substance of his teaching was important. What was important was that he was an absolutely brilliant teacher. Then, in Cambridge, there was Charles Smyth, and when I came back after the army, there was Charles Wilson. He’s important because he was an anti-Keynesian economic historian. Then there was Michael Oakeshott. For a time I wrote in Oakeshottian language but with an unOakeshottian crudeness. The thing about Oakeshott’s writing was that it was subtle and mine wasn’t subtle, but I borrowed the language. And then there was Herbert Butterfield. That’s about it among seniors, and there are contemporaries, like John Vincent, for example.

I understand that Roger Scruton was influenced by you at one time. Are you happy to be allied with Scruton nowadays? 

There was a time when I knew him very well when he was a fellow at Peterhouse. I liked him very much. When he became editor of the Salisbury Review and for a little while afterwards I thought there was something faintly wooden about his politics, but now I regard him as a very, very good thing. It’s not only that he writes about politics, it’s that he writes about politics, it’s that he writes about everything else. He’s written a very good book about architecture and aesthetics, a huge great book about sex, a political book about conservatism, and very good books about Kant and Spinoza. He is a remarkably versatile and intelligent person. I used to have some reservations. I do not have any now. There are things I disagree about, and I have no wish to go to Czechoslovakia and meet all these dissidents. Now he’s trying to found a Conservative party in Czechoslovakia. I’ve no wish to be involved in that.

You have been accused of cynicism, but a more recent suggestion is that you take the view that, in the face of transcendence of God, no moral or political system has any authority. 

I think one needs to put into that sentence ‘no ultimate authority’, because I obviously don’t believe it to be the case that no moral or political system can have authority. One has, I think, to be very mindful of the limits and ignorance of even legitimate government. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, for example, there has been a slow subterranean dissent from Marxism-Leninism which has now finally surfaced. It isn’t surprising that the Soviet government had got out of touch and become rigid. It’s taken at least thirty or forty years for this change to happen (it has obviously been going since the end of Stalin).

In a recent newspaper profile in the Sunday Telegraph you were represented as saying that the last war was a catastrophic mistake. What possible alternative was there to going to war? 

I didn’t actually describe it as a catastrophic mistake. I think that was the Sunday Telegraph profile writer. What I did say was that Churchill and Chamberlain were both imperialists who believed in the British Empire, and between them they got us into the war in September 1939. In that sense, they were responsible for the eventual destruction of the British Empire, and that was the point of my book The Impact of Hitler.

It seemed to me singularly ill-contrived for the British government to be going to war with Hitler when Hitler might have been about to attack the Russians, and even more ill-contrived that, when Hitler did attack the Russians, he had already defeated the French army. What I’m saying is that the war shouldn’t have been started in September 1939. Also, although, looking  back, the war looks inevitable, there were in fact a number of alternatives. Historical thought has assumed that nothing is inevitable. On the question of whether Hitler was going to attack the Russians, the one thing that does seem clear is that he didn’t know whether he wished to attack Britain but did know that he wished to attack Russia.

A third question I broached in an article in the Sunday Telegraph in August 1989, and also in The Impact of Hitler, as what would have happened if we’d allowed Hitler to attack the Russians and establish a predominance in east and south-eastern Europe? I simply asked the question, because I think it’s impossible to come to a conclusion about whether a German-dominated Europe would have been better for Britain, whether it would have been better that there should have been no war between Britain and Hitler (assuming that the British Empire could have been preserved intact), and about whether one should welcome the Russian victory over Germany and Russian and American predominance in Europe. I simply ask these questions. I don’t know the answer.

In the same article you suggest that our winning the war paved the way for what you call, ‘priggery Puritanism and permissiveness’. 

The point of the article was that after 1940 the student revolution of the 1930s, which was just like the student revolution of the 1960s only different in manner, got involved in the running of the war. Afterwards there was the appearance of Britain winning and Britain in a sense did win, being on the side of the Russians and the Americans. But, from the point of view of Britain, the war was really not a good thing and I would regard it as, in effect, a defeat.

After the war the whole body of opinion which had been student revolutionary in the 1930s became very respectable through having been involved in the war, and what was a form of defeat was presented as victory. It was a victory for liberal democracy, for anti-totalitarianism, for a sort of emasculated version of everything that the young had believed in the 1930s. I’m not drawing any particular conclusions from this, but simply saying that this frame of mind operated in all parts of the political spectrum, really until the late 1960s. That is what I mean by a wartime consensus which lasted politically right through Macmillan, he being a perfect embodiment of it, though I thought Macmillan a wonderful party-political leader.

It all went on until the late 1960s, when it was destroyed by a combination of student revolution, Private Eye – remember how Private Eye absolutely demolished the circulation of the Spectator, under Nigel Lawson, oddly enough – Powellism, and latterly Thatcherism. Between them, they made the whole of that consensus, which had lasted from 1940 to about the mid 1960s, look anachronistic and old fashioned. I don’t think it has ever quite recovered.

Why did you think the objection, widely shared, to using force in Suez in 1956 was ‘so naive as to be intellectually offensive’? 

First, my objection in 1956 was to people who blew themselves up in indignation. There were prudential reasons for not invading Egypt, and it might have been better not to have done so; also the alliance with the Israelis, though it was a secret, was probably a mistake. My objection to the objectors is that what they were really doing was what the anti-Vietnam war movement did in the United States. If they had only really used their arguments properly, they could have found prudential and political reasons for arguing against invasion. What was wrong that that wasn’t the mainspring of their argument, their mainspring being that force should never be used.

You ask about Christian ethics. I didn’t want to make the point in a Christian ethical way, but if you do, then there is a long history of discussion of the sorts of occasion on which force is legitimate. And it would be very difficult to decide what degree of provocation was contained in Nasser’s occupation of the Canal, whether or not that really was a ground for war. I can’t see any reason of principle why it should not have been. It’s not my business to pronounce on the application of the Christian ethical doctrine of a just war on the Suez campaign of 1956, but it’s simply not the case that Eden’s invasion of Egypt was an open-and-shut case of idiotic or angry aggression. It was the result of a very long series of incidents. The casuistry of the ethical doctrine would have to consider in great detail the relationship between Nasser’s conduct and Eden’s reactions. The important point about it is that it is not an open-and-shut case; and a perfectly good case can be made either way.

Except that at the time Eden was in collusion with Israel and planning even before Nasser acted.

I thought the collusion with Israel was mistaken, not in terms of principle but in terms of prudence and policy. It doesn’t seem to me that if, as Eden rightly or wrongly did, you took the view in 1956 that Nasser was an irreconcilable enemy of Britain’s interests in the Middle East, then there is anything wrong in using the Israelis against him. But there is a lot of reason to think it was politically unwise.

What view did you take of the Falklands War at the time? 

At the beginning I thought, oh dear, I hope there isn’t going to be another Suez, i.ee a cock-up. Secondly, although it had to be conducted and had to be won, there was no British interest of any consequence involved. It was a far-away country of which, as Neville Chamberlain said, regrettably we know little. There may be some Antarctic interest involved, but that must be very minimal and probably would have been better got rid of before the war happened.

A reviewer of your Religion and Public Doctrine called you illiberal and extreme. I don’t expect you see yourself in this light, but can you understand why some people react like that? 

Oh, yes. I’m very happy to be able to tell you that I get under the skin of quite a lot of people. They think that I believe more reactionary things than I do because I like to use positions against them which I know will annoy them. Probably, if the truth be known, I’m a much broader and more central figure than even I’m aware of. That’s a good answer to make.

It comes basically, fundamentally and originally from a desire, as I said earlier, to say something I knew I wanted to say before I found the vehicle through which to say it. Some part of what I wanted to say I knew would be antipathetic; it was meant to be antipathetic to the sort of people who regard me as – I don’t know whether the word ‘evil’ isn’t dignifying myself too much; but who regard what I’m saying as very wrong. Sometimes people think it’s very wicked.

You have never married. Did your preoccupation with academic pursuits rule it out, or was there another reason? 

Nothing to do with academic pursuits at all, and there isn’t really any reason.

Your life as an academic suggests a certain stoicism, as if you were not prone to normal human frailties. 

It’s not an accurate impression at all. I have a well-regulated life which is not confined to Cambridge and which is, one might say, low-key and domestic and provides me with much happiness.

Some people are not interested in the pleasures of the flesh of any kind. Are you one of them? 

Absolutely not.

So you’re human like anybody else? 

Oh, I should think so, yes.

Do you feel more comfortable in the presence of women or men? 

There are a small number of women in whose company I am very happy. Peterhouse is still a mainly male college, but when I’m not in Cambridge, the company I keep is mainly female, and that is very good. As a fellow of a college, living in college during term but only during term, there is a sort of semi-domestic atmosphere which is predominantly male; but that is not how I live out of term when I’m not in Cambridge.

Are you, or would you call yourself, a bon viveur?

No. That implies a general inebriation, and a taste for wine and a discriminating taste for food which I don’t have. I have simple tastes in food and I drink whisky or gin in large quantities, but only at certain times of day. I don’t really drink wine, that doesn’t sound like a bon viveur.

Do you agree that religion and sex are the two strongest forces to effect our lives? 

I think you’re on the verge of another reductionism. The sexual drive is very strong in practice, but I’m not sure that it’s as strong in thought. If you look at the content of European thought, it doesn’t seem to me that thought about sex plays a very important part. It’s a very strong and sometimes a sublimating  drive in many thinkers, but it’s not central. There is obviously a great deal of writing about sexual conduct in ethical discourse, in novels and poetry, but it isn’t the central feature of the thought of Western Europe. It doesn’t play such a predominant part in the thought of Western Europe as religion does.

But mightn’t its absence be detrimental to one’s achievement, even intellectually? 

I’ve never felt any frustration in work from that quarter. But perhaps that’s because I lead a well-regulated, cheerful, happy life. I think there are a lot of people for whom sexuality is very strong, but there are also a lot of people, and I suspect particularly that there are a lot of English people for whom it is not strong. I’m not in any way denying its importance. In the lives of some people it’s primary, but not of English people on the whole, and I don’t know any other nation well. For many English people, it is heavily operative when they’re young, and then it becomes domesticated.

Why your obsession with religion? 

I think because, when I arrived in Cambridge, that was the form in which intellectual power presented itself to me. One simply cannot tell what the effect of powerful teaching on a seventeen-year-old will be, but I’m quite sure that the effect of the teaching I had in 1943 is quite indelible and that’s why there is this obsession with religion. If you want the autobiographical explanation, that’s it, but as I said at the beginning, what every historian ought to be concerned about is this area of religion, politics, culture and economic activity. A lot of modern historians, it seems to me, are not concerned with religion, and ought to be.

As you’ve grown older, have you felt you’ve become more religious? 

Neither yes nor no. The process is working itself out in writing the books, and I don’t know what the outcome will be. I feel more convinced now than I was twenty years ago that religion is very central, whatever the form it takes. It should be very central to anyone’s thinking life. But I’m certainly not more observant in religion than I was twenty years ago. In fact I’m less so, but you’re right in a way in saying I have an obsession. But it’s an intellectual obsession, part of the conception of what any thinker ought to be doing, and the fact that it takes historical form is accidental.

Have you an unfulfilled ambition? 

Oh, I want to finish Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, that’s what I want to do.

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