Anne Deighton: ‘The Value Added of Political Life-Writing’

In the third of the Weinrebe lecture series, Professor Anne Deighton spoke about ‘the value added of political life-writing’ with reference to her work on Ernest Bevin. She reminded us about the durability of this genre: there have been so many recent biographies of Attlee, Thatcher and Blair. Former ministers love to write autobiographies as well as publishing their diaries: they are often used to settle scores. These books have two things in common: they are very long, and not many people read them. Professor Deighton spoke of some of the questions facing historians who write biography. Are their private lives really relevant to history? How significant are the lives of individuals? She suggested that there are occasions when the individual perspective really does matter to the broader historical context. For example, with Blair and Iraq, or with Thatcher and the Falklands: these were instances in which individuals were really exercising agency, not solely defined by the structures around them. Professor Deighton is interested in the ways in which ideas are transmitted and the ways in which institutions (for example, the Church, or the Conservative party) channel those ideas. For example, how did the Labour party turn ideas into practical policies in the years after 1945. She suggested that it is harder to shift existing policies in foreign policy, the sphere in which Bevin was operating. Bevin himself represents particular challenges for the biographer: he left no diary, no letters, no memoir; he preferred to deal in conversations with officials and his handwriting is barely legible. This, however, did not prevent an exhaustive three volume work which took eleven years to write, published in the early 1980s. But Professor Deighton argues that there is merit in taking a fresh look at his life. Bevin was a child labourer and always an unskilled worker: without skill, he had little prospect of upward mobility. He was, however, a passionate trade unionist, always more interested in the unions than the Labour party. He was in his 30s before his political career took off as part of the TGWU. He was interested in the international labour movement and aspired to become Secretary General of the ILO: instead he was appointed Minister of Labour in the wartime government, working closely with Churchill despite personal antipathy. In 1945 he was unexpectedly appointed Foreign Secretary. The odds were stacked against success: expectations of the socialist government were very high yet the UK was bankrupt. He was came under personal attack for an apparent failure to deliver change and the perception that he had too readily become part of the establishment. But Professor Deighton suggested that change is harder to deliver in foreign policy because there is greater institutional inertia. Bevin believed in Britain’s status as a great power and that possessing an atom bomb was necessary to underlining this. He saw that Britain had leadership obligations but also acknowledged the USA’s unique role in the post-war world. He saw economics as central to diplomacy and prosperity as a pathway to lasting peace. As a union man, he was ambivalent about free trade, and wanted to secure benefits for ‘my people’ – on the other hand, he was a transnationalist who cared about the fate of the working classes across the world. There were issues – China, Palestine and India – where he could have little impact (India, for example, was not in his brief.) But he perhaps had the most significant and lasting impact on foreign policy of any Foreign Secretary in the 20th century. The institutions which he helped shaped – the UN, World Bank, IMF, NATO, and the Council of Europe, to name just a few – continue to play a significant role in the world today. Issues that he grappled with – the ending of imperial regimes, the role of Russia, nuclear power – continue to have echoes into our own day. Bevin wanted to integrate his own experience and background into foreign policy: he believed in bringing people into decision making through democratic engagement. He knew the vulnerability of people at the bottom of the pile because he had once been there himself, and so he understood their inherent conservatism and resistance to change. As a trade union man, he also became a pragmatist and could live with less than ideal outcomes. Bevin was a do-er, not a thinking or an ideas man. He could sometimes blunder and sometimes be a bully. But he wanted to make things happen, and he saw this set of institutions as the most effective way to channel power in the new world order. He recognised the importance of soft power as well as military might. His effectiveness can easily be measured against his successor, Morrison, whose term shows how weak the Foreign Secretary can be. But though active and dynamic in the early years, towards the end of his term, Bevin became increasingly constrained by Foreign Office operations. Attlee sacked Bevin over the phone while at his own birthday party: he died shortly after. Professor Deighton concluded by suggesting that for historians, a chronological life is not enough: the research must speak to the literature in the discipline. Biography is a narrative: history is a judgement.

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Professor Lord Peter Hennessy: ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’

As part of the Weinrebe Lectures in Life-Writing on the theme of Political History and Life-Writing, OCLW welcomed Professor Lord Peter Hennessy last Tuesday to give a lecture entitled ‘The Importance of Being Personal: Political History and Life’. True to his chosen title, Hennessy’s lecture was in large part introspective. Reflecting on his personal development as a historian, he gave an account, rich in anecdotes and humour, of the strata underpinning his historical outlook; what he vividly referred to as his “compost”. This biographical narrative was presented alongside a plethora of anecdotes illustrating the role of the personal in British political history and its effect on the current political landscape.

Hennessy started by explaining the rationale behind his lecture: an attempt at examining the degree to which others’ personality has shaped his own approach to history. Quoting Thomas Carlyle’s dictum -“History is the essence of innumerable biographies” – he went on to consider how a historian’s own biography could also be of the essence. Confessing to having his hippocampus “stamped with biographies”, Hennessy intimated that his first conscious memories of a Prime Minister were of the 1950s when Winston Churchill was in power. Although professing to shy away from theories—“Gossip with footnotes is what I believe” – Hennessy maintained that British people acquire expectations of the activities of a Prime Minister through their experience of the first Prime Minister they encounter in their own lives. The man who made his mark in Hennessy’s case was Harold McMillan. Through that experience, Hennessy gained the sense that a Prime Minister should be steeped in history, polished by the classics and dripping in self-confidence. It is no wonder, he pointed out, that he felt disappointed from then on.

Politicians have a way of constructing an image of themselves almost from the start of their careers. To this purpose, Hennessy argued, props are useful. Odd names, such as Winston, Enoch or Boris may help. Or physical props, like hats or cigars. Even initials, such as R. A. Butler can serve the purpose. But glasses, he added, can be a problem. Seemingly insubstantial, such factors “have a chance of clinging to the velcro of collective memory”. Language is also extremely important. Referring to the contemporary political scene, Hennessy noted that even before the election, our “palates are jaded”. The language of political exchange, he argued, is very meagre and inadequate for the political conversation that is needed in Britain today. Hennessy proposed the need for a model, and offered Orwell, who famously warned that the “slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts”, as a candidate. Hennessy argued that Orwell’s list of bad examples in his 1946 essay ‘Politics and the English Language’ reads well by today’s standards, and it could serve as an antidote for what Hennessy described as the “Blue Peter out of management consultants’” language – a  “preachiness combined with opacity”—that is currently pervasive in politics.

Hennessy’s concern with current political discourse led him to share his doubts about the efficacy of debates as a platform through which to discern who could best perform the task of prime minister. Hennessy worried that to succeed in a debate one needed the skills of a “plausible tart”, which would rarely be needed in the role itself. Although these ideas were shared with a great deal of wit, the underlying concern was serious: there is a real possibility that current practice is narrowing the flow of good prime ministers, favouring instead those with “well-rehearsed spontaneity”.

Hennessy made passing mention of a few personal regrets. One of these was not having written a history of the role of rumours and gossiping in politics. Recognising this is something hard to preserve, he argued that it was nevertheless crucially important: “in some weeks the world is moved by little else”. Although he felt it went too far, he quoted Carlyle again, this time stating: “History is a distillation of rumour”.

The point the lecture kept illuminating was that “one’s personal biography jostles with other people’s”. Rejecting Napoleon’s theory that one looks at the world the way one did when one was 20, Hennessy believed that his defining moment was the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953, which coincided with the first ascent of Everest. To this, he added the shaping influence of Eagle comics as well. This experience of 1953 led him to acquire a belief that the British are good at mixing tradition and modernity. He described how at that time people still talked in terms of before and after the war, and they were still rationed. And yet, in spite of this, there was an enormous sense of optimism. Hennessy felt that living in that atmosphere allowed him to consciously absorb the notion that “my country was a success story country”. He asked us in the audience to think, on the way home, about the year that formed our norms.

Emphasising the importance of bringing both humility to the writing table and a sense of what is unknowable, Hennessy ended the lecture with a nod to two writers who informed his view of the process of writing history. The first was Lytton Strachey, who in his biography of Queen Victoria spoke of the “secret chamber of consciousness”. Hennessy warned that “It’s hard enough to know one’s own, let alone anybody else’s”. Fittingly for a historian lecturing at Wolfson College, Hennessy ended with Isaiah Berlin quoting Kant: “out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made”.

Roy Foster: ‘The Making of Saints: politics, biography and hagiography in modern Irish history’

On 26 January Professor Roy Foster opened our Weinrebe Lecture series with an excellent talk entitled ‘The Making of Saints: politics, biography and hagiography in modern Irish history.’ It was a fascinating and engaging presentation that held the audience captivated, so I will begin with a request that everyone who missed it take advantage of the podcast when it is available.

Roy Foster began his lecture by reminding us that the Irish are very good at making saints and this tradition of pious hagiography translated very easily into the way in which lives of revolutionaries were written.  Catholicism became a central part of their politics; they were revered as martyrs to their cause and the language used was borrowed from hagiography.  Those who fought in the rebellion of 1916 were always going to be remembered as heroes and after 1918 as saints.  Following a traumatic civil war Ireland settled down into a deeply conservative environment, the participants could only be written about with reverence, everything else was silenced and as a consequence their lives were immobilised.

Both the timing of the revolution, and those who became involved in the violence came as a surprise to many.  Foster argued that the best way to get a clear picture of those who took part is by creating a group biography, focusing on their temperaments as much as ideology.  Interpreting their lives before they became saints is the key to understanding how the uprising went from thoughts to actions.  As a generation they were not just rebelling against the British State, but also their parents and their values.  They were conscious of living at a time of flux.  It was not just nationalism that bound them together, but also radicalism, suffrage, secularism and vegetarianism, among other things, which does not fit easily with the Catholic image of sainthood.

Foster explained that for half a century hagiography dominated, in 1966 there was an outpouring of comment and celebration but not scepticism.  Behind the scenes, however, things were very different.  The Bureau of Military History was recording a lot of the personal memories of revolutionaries.  These added extra depth and dimension to their stories, although it did not question hagiography.  The 1960s helped to set in motion the questioning of this practice and a rethinking of their lives.  It came about as a reaction to escalating violence in Northern Ireland and as a new way of looking at Republican history was growing in Ireland.  Leaders were critically examined for the first time.  Over the last 2 years the re-evaluation has stalled somewhat in the lead up to the centenary, with a Government concern that Sinn Fein will hijack 1916.

In conclusion Foster argued that group biography is a better guide to reconstructing the revolutionaries’ efforts and youth.  He left us with the thought that if the revolutionaries became martyrs, they certainly were not saints.