Maurice Cowling’s achievement

Roger Scruton
25 August 2005

Maurice Cowling, who died aged 78 on 24 August 2005, was one of the leading conservative intellectuals of his generation, a brilliant and erudite historian, and a notorious scourge of the liberal establishment. He was also a great teacher, who set aside his opinions in order to discuss ideas openly and fairly with his students.

His influence was as apparent in the politician Michael Portillo, whose conservatism he helped to crystallise, as in Peter Fuller, who learned to be a Marxist art critic by debating the point with Maurice. It is thanks largely to Maurice Cowling that Peterhouse, the Cambridge University college where he was a fellow, became known as the centre of intelligent reaction in the 1970s and 1980s.

All of us who were fellows of the college in that period felt the exhilaration of his intellectual presence, and some of us – notably David Watkin, Edward Norman, Edward Shils, John Vincent and myself – were encouraged by Maurice to be more forthright in declaring our dissent from the left-liberal orthodoxies of the day.

Maurice had this effect even though he regarded conservative beliefs with considerable irony. His intellect was an immense negative force, which could undermine any conviction and pour scorn on any emotional attachment. He regarded conservative beliefs in the same light as he regarded all beliefs other than those of the Christian faith – as self-serving expedients, whereby individuals sought the good opinion of their fellows and closed their minds to uncomfortable realities. He himself lived with uncomfortable realities on easygoing terms, demanding only intelligent pupils, the company of seedy journalists and a supply of whisky in order to continue impishly smiling at the unremitting spectacle of human folly.

Maurice’s iconoclastic approach to the world of ideas was in part inspired by his forays into the world of journalism. These culminated in 1971, when his life-long friend George Gale, being appointed editor of the weekly political magazine The Spectator, invited Maurice to edit the book pages. Under the guidance of Gale and Cowling The Spectator became a serious vehicle of ideas, and an articulate voice of reaction. But like all Maurice’s ventures into Grub Street, this one came to a premature end when The Spectator changed hands in 1974.

Maurice returned to his rooms in Peterhouse, to continue work on his magnum opus, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, the third and longest volume of which appeared in 2001. The purpose of this work was twofold: to show the commanding influence of ideas on the development of modern British society, and to point to the enduring relevance of religion in determining just what those ideas have been.

Maurice’s method was the very opposite of that advocated by the Annales school of historiography. Parish registers, hospital statistics, demographic trends and socio-economic surveys had little significance, in his writing, in comparison with pamphlets by obscure Anglican clergymen, exchanges of letters between members of the House of Lords, and the quarrels and crises of Oxbridge dons.

The argument over Anglicanism that began with Keble and the Oxford movement was carried over, in Maurice’s view, into all the subsequent intellectual movements that affected the course of English history: the partisanship of culture against science in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Matthew Arnold, John Ruskin and FR Leavis; the debates over the constitution in John Stuart Mill, Lord Acton, AV Dicey and FW Maitland; the conflict between liberalism and conservatism in Parliament and out of it; the whole tendency of modern English culture as the chill winds of secularism swept across it and a sense of the fragility and uniqueness of England replaced the old religious certainty of the Book of Common Prayer.

Maurice’s critics regarded his choice of topics as eccentric and his historical method as unfounded. Others, however, have found inspiration and illumination in his meticulous attention to the mental and spiritual makeup of public figures.

If ideas are as important as he makes them out to be, then a life spent like Maurice’s, in examining, mocking and refuting them, has not been spent in vain. And the immense breadth of his learning meant that everything he wrote brings new information and a new perspective on its subject. He was a trenchant critic of liberalism, and his book on Mill was the first major attempt since that of Sir James Fitzjames Stephen in 1873 to identify Mill’s liberal outlook as a threat to ordinary human decencies.

But, while Maurice inoculated several generations of undergraduates against liberal orthodoxy, his own positive opinions were hard to discern through the smokescreen of irony. He stood unsuccessfully as a Conservative candidate in 1958, and kept up relations with the Conservative Party establishment throughout his life. But he made it seem that he was playing Devil’s advocate in his positive as much as in his negative opinions.

At the same time his irony resembled that of Socrates – the sign not of flippancy but of a profound moral seriousness that would not allow itself the luxury of illusions. It was because they could discern this seriousness behind the impish mask, indeed, that Maurice’s pupils of all political persuasions remained so fervently attached to him and so grateful for his intellectual example.

It is hard to say what Maurice Cowling’s influence on historical studies will be. I suspect that his work will be consulted for many years to come, both as a curiosity of scholarship and as a proof of the inward-looking nature of English conservatism in its years of decline. And there will surely be a resolute core of admirers, for whom the name of Cowling will stand beside those of Maitland, Herbert Butterfield and HAL Fisher, as denoting a truly English historian, able to see his country as the unique, flawed but precious thing that it was.

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