Maurice Cowling - Ultra-Conservative Extraordinaire
I have been asked to talk about various things, but I would like to talk about Maurice Cowling, particularly, who I call an ultra-conservative extraordinaire. Professor Cowling’s dead now. But he was a very interesting man. He crossed all sorts of theoretical boundaries in his career as an academic and, I suppose, a sort of radical conservative journalist for many years.
I knew him about 10 to 15 years before his death, and he taught at Peterhouse. There’s a novel by C. P. Snow called The Masters about an election in a Cambridge college, Oxbridge college, on the intensity of the political passions at the microscopic level amongst these clever men. That is very much the sort of ambience in which this man moved. He was regarded in some ways as a little bit of a Thatcherite. He never was. And I always had the impression that like professor Roger Scruton, who he was different from, but who he resembled in certain respects, he is often wheeled out when people wish to damage the mainstream Conservative and Unionist Party.
It was well said that in the 1980s that Penguin, a book publisher not the friendliest to Tories, published two books, Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, the bible of Chicago-School libertarian capitalism, and Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism. And they did both of those in some ways to attack the Conservative Party of that time. But no one would to accuse you of attacking anything when you’re publishing intellectual material that is in some way adjacent to the party concerned.
Maurice Cowling was a very radical individual in all sorts of ways. I’ll say a few biographical things about him first, because he’s just an interesting man. The first thing is that Cowling lived at night, that Cowling would sleep in the day, and he’d sit up at night. When you had a university seminar with him, you’d go and see him at one in the morning. Everybody was sort of wrecked, essentially, when they climbed up to his tower to see him, and the mist would be coming out of the ???. And the porter would open . . . It’s like the scene in Macbeth with the porter, after the murder and he’s got the chains on the door, and you come in there, this leery, old porter looks at you and says, “Professor Cowling is it, sir?” And you say, “Yes.”
You go up this stairwell, and you open the door, and Cowling will be in this book-lined room. Straight out of scenes with Jonathan Harker in Dracula. You go into this room and there’s books on this wall and books on this wall and books on this wall, and Cowling’s lying on the bed dressed in green. You go in there and he looks at you, and says, “Oh, it’s you again.” In Cambridge, you have to read the SAR (???) Aristotle, Heraclitus, Plato to Hobbes, libertarianism, and John Rawls, in a way, but it’s that sort of spectrum.
And he would give you these essays that didn’t really related to the course as such, but you had to do a certain amount of work for it. In a way, you were more than educated to sort of get the degree. He wasn’t particularly concerned with qualifications. On Marx and Engels, he’d just invent an essay for you and say, “Karl Marx: ??? libertarian. Discuss.” And he’d have you go away and do that. Of course, what he’s talking about is the 1844 manuscripts, the early Marx, the differentiation from the scientific socialism that comes later.
Interesting thing about Cowling is that Cowling was a sort of archetype for the sort of dons depicted in Porterhouse Blue by Tom Sharpe, because of course that comedy called Porterhouse means Peterhouse, and he’s talking about the ultra-reactionaries in Cambridge.
Now, Cowling was deeply un-English in certain respects and deeply English in others. When I say un-English, he was ultra-intellectual, had no time for small talk: drivel and garbage! [???] Now, if you made an intellectual proposition, or you wrote a sentence down in your essay — because you had to read it out loud in front of him — and he ??? it, he would attack everything you’ve said. He would attack every proposition and he would attack every idea behind it. He believed in dialectics. He believed that struggle is the meaning of truth. So, you had this war with him basically between about 1:30 and quarter of 3 in the morning, and then you’d stagger down the tower, and another victim would come up to be impaled, and you’d see him sneaking up the stairs.
It was well known that female students had to be kept away from him. Not for the usual reasons, but because he was so intellectually merciless, that it was sort of damaging. Certain students had to be kept away from him as well. So they only used to throw into the gladiatorial pit of combat the ones who could take it. And this tells you a lot about Maurice, in that Maurice was a sort of somewhat slightly dangerous man, certainly for the academic life of that era.
I remember George Steiner, the Emeritus Professor of European culture and civilization at Churchill and at Geneva University simultaneously, once said at a private party that he regarded Maurice Cowling as evil and a force for evil, and there are various reasons why he might think that, personal and otherwise.
Now, Maurice Cowling is unusual in that he was a deeply elitist and extreme conservative, and a very intellectually assiduous individual. The interesting thing about him is that he set himself in a more continental way against liberalism as a conception. He didn’t think of conservatism as a species of liberalism. He thought of conservatism as in some respects an anti-Enlightenment proposition.
He didn’t quite do a thesis or PhD in the usual way, but his basic thesis text, a bit like Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, was about John Stuart Mill and was published to general horror several years later. He sort of launched himself into an attack upon Mill. His argument about him is quite eccentric even from the perspective of people who don’t care for that particular thinker, because his view was that contrary to the idea that Mill was opening up towards tolerance and inclusion and freedom of thought and freedom of belief and secularity and a sort of plenitude of milky goodness, he regarded it as an implicit totalitarian, a prig, a man determined to impose his values and views on others and a militant destroyer of religion and an aggressive secularist.
One of Cowling’s theses is that liberalism isn’t a nice viewpoint as everyone imagines, but actually is a devouring viewpoint, particularly of prior religious ideas that uphold notions of hierarchy in society. So, his second book was on the use and misuse/limitations of political science. Cowling’s early books were very abstract, and were one of the reasons he basically resumed after a break in his academic career.
His career was broken by war, the Second World War, and by a period in journalism. But he could never really get started in journalism because he always had a tendency to write scathing reviews (???) journal, or to attack the editor, or to (???) in print, and you can only imagine, because he was such a cross-grained, “reactionary,” and difficult individual that, very like Auberon Waugh, a journalist who in many ways he resembles. Auberon Waugh once wrote an article in The Spectator in 1974 arguing for a coup-d’etat in Britain. Which didn’t make him very popular. But then again, who wants to be popular? And Cowling was a bit similar. He was sacked, or “removed” the expression was, from the Express Group, because the editors said he was, “too reactionary, even for us.” This was in the early 1960s, which in many ways was quite prior to the cultural and social deluge which was to occur.
So he resumes his academic career with these texts in the background on Mill and on the uses of politics. In a strange way for such a theoretical man, the belief that theory doesn’t impinge upon on the life and manners and mores of politicians very much.
Cowling was a very complex individual, because although he believed that intellectual ideas dominate life, and intellectuals are the power class, even though they have no formal power in our society, because everybody else is so dumb and beneath them and the lever of their ideas. He believed that politicians are usually motivated by everything other than principles.
And Cowling is a strange individual, because although he had preferred beliefs of his own he was also a little bit of a nihilist. Essentially an attacker, he had a mind that is often more associated with the Left than the Right, because whenever you put a proposition to him his first idea will be to attack, to deconstruct, to break down, to sweep away and to see if your ideas could stand it. It’s a sort of slightly more aggressive version of the Socratic method whereby you don’t put forward your own proposition, you just chisel away at whatever anyone has said to you and remain somehow to one side. Of course, he had no Plato to explicate it all even better than he may have put it at the time later, so he had to do that for himself.
So, you’ve got this strange tension in Cowling between an ultra-theoretical view of life and the view that politicians are deliberative rogues acting in microscopic ways particularly in relation to loyalties that they have with each other within cabinets, within parties, and within bureaucracies. Like Enoch Powell, he believed, in particularly English and British terms, that party was very important, and he was completely dismissive of the modern idea that they’re all the same and what does it matter which party people are in. He liked the idea of the good party man, even though he didn’t associate with them, because they were a bore.
Cowling regarded most people as bores, including Michael Portillo, whom he educated and who many people think he groomed mentally for the leadership of the Tory party. But when somebody would ask Cowling, “What’s your view of Michael Portillo?” He’d say, “Oh well, he’d make a middling bureaucrat in a private business.” He was always slightly condescending about everyone really, including most of his fellow dons. ???
One of his favorite sparring partners was Hugh Trevor-Roper, who committed a major faux-pas when he authenticated the Hitler diaries. It was an enormous scandal that went around the world. Cowling set up a dinner party in Cambridge called The Authenticators, and everybody had to put up their hand when they went to his dinner party and say, “I totally authenticate, with my heart, the proven efficacy of these texts. I know he wrote them, and I put my entire reputation upon it!” Which was some stupid thing that Roper had come out with in the furor, when Stern had been had, and paid 12 million Deutschmarks, or whatever they paid, to some elderly German forger, who forged multiple volumes of this stuff with his own calligraphic set in his garage. They paid millions and millions for it. The only historian, interestingly, who said they were fakes from beginning to end was David Irving. Life has a funny way of behaving, because a couple weeks ago I went to a garden party that Irving gave in which he talked about these and other matters, and I suddenly appeared [???] with many others appearing at this garden party. To go to a Buckinghamshire garden party, on a Sunday, its the basest of all infamy isn’t it?
Now, Cowling had this sort of rivalry with Trevor-Roper, who of course was regarded as something of a Third Reich expert because he wrote the famous book about the bunker, The Last Days of Hitler. But he brawled with all other academics, really, because of his nature. Despite all the comedy and the element of a C. P. Snow reactionary don lookalike, he wrote three, four, five very, very serious intellectual books. So serious that most of his conservative students who passed, put under his “care,” didn’t entirely realize what he was saying.
My view of Cowling is that the idea that he was a mainstream historian, whereas someone like Irving is a demon, is in many ways false. I would say, in some respects, Cowling is to the right of Irving. This is one of the paradoxes that you face in late modernity, where certain people are regarded as beyond the pale of the pale of the pale, and other people are regarded as quite mainstream, and it’s actually partly because no one ever really looks at their ideas.
Irving’s a nostalgic. He would love this country to be like the 1950s. His faux-pas is that he’s sort of fallen in love with Adolf Hitler, which as a historian is regarded as not such a brilliant move, if you want to be published by Macmillan, which he was, of course, earlier in his career. Martin Gilbert hates Hitler and loves Churchill, and he’s sort of inverted it, hasn’t he? He would have been with Churchill’s wife burning a prominent modernist portrait of Churchill downstairs at the charcoal oven, chopping it up and using it as firewood. You know what Churchill said about that painting? He said, “It makes me look thick, and I ain’t.”
But Cowling is very, very Right-wing, but in a complicated way. He had no time for Continental ultra Right-wing views. He believed that the key to the radical and absolutist Right in Britain is it never really said what it is. And it must come from inside the brain of the Tory party, and it would educate those brains before they entered the cabinet. This is his central theory.
His first book was about the Labour government in 1924 leading to Labour’s involvement in the administration prior to the crash of 1929, the so-called betrayal of the labor movement and the emergence of some national Labour people ??? around Ramsay MacDonald, and their adoption ??? in to what was essentially a Conservative administration. Now, Cowling was opposed to Labour’s influence in modern 20th-century life because he basically didn’t believe that the masses should have democratic representation in the way that we’ve got it. He wasn’t a democrat particularly, and he believed in the manipulation of state power by a little conservative elite. He believed that Labour would always push everything, even within democratic norms, further and further to the Left because it was the logic of their position.
By further and further to the Left, he means to make more equal. Cowling realized in the way that really only Continental far Right thinkers like Benoist realized, that the real point about the Right isn’t concepts like race or religion or nationality, although these are very significant, it’s inequality — it’s the spiritual goodness, if you like, of inequality as the founding belief and structure. All the others are discourses — certainly this is how he configured them — or semiotics through which you or by virtue of which you build meaning through inequality.
Therefore, he was the sort of conservative, or ultra-conservative, call it what you will, who believed that the maximization of inequality, not just material inequality which is a very low form of inequality, or equality, but immaterial forms of equality/inequality is what life is about. Hierarchies of beauty, of form, of intellect, of knowledge. These are of course aristocratic, pre-democratic, anti-middle class, anti-bourgeois class, illiberal conceptions; even though he comes from that background himself, a lot like Nietzsche in a differentiated way, he became spokesman for aristocratic mores in a British setting.
This book about the Labour administration in 1924, called The Impact of Labour, is incredibly detailed. The Left-wing historian, A. J. P. Taylor, said that, “Of all the historians of his generation, Cowling had the greatest mind, after my own.” You can’t beat them, can you? But Taylor who, of course, was one of the founding members of the CND [Committee for Nuclear Disarmament] and was on the Committee of 100, the most radical element of the CND with Bertrand Russell and all these people who all sat in front of the nuclear power plant, all standing in front of the American nuclear bunkers, all standing sat in front of the Ministry of Defence on Northumberland Avenue. What they thought they’d achieve by sitting in the rain, other than dirtying their backs, one doesn’t really know. That’s what A. J. P. Taylor thought.
Taylor himself was a dissident, of course, who wrote his own soft revisionist book about the origins of the Second World War called, with devastating unoriginality, The Origins of the Second World War, which caused immense difficulty and was denounced from all circles. When the ferocious denunciations of Taylor came in, Taylor would run to the postbox and go, “Look, there’s another one!” Because he actively loved this sort of gadfly madness.
Now, his view of Cowling’s work is very interesting because it comes from the other side, politically, and Cowling would concentrate on the micro-politics of Labour figures: where they came from, which chapel they went to, what denomination within Christianity they did or didn’t believe in, whether they were an atheist or not, internally or externally, and whether their religious belief was just purely social or had a theological basis. These are key elements for Cowling, but also the alliances that people form. Unlike a lot of academic and purely theoretical historians ??? Even Marxist historians like Hobsbawm or E. P. Thompson, for example, are deeply empirical in relation to a lot of Continental writers, because that seems to be the British historiographical tradition, of which Cowling was definitely an exponent.
The interesting thing is the outer scope and texture of power and how these politicians behave, particularly under stress, because they are nearly always under stress in one way or another. His view is that when you allow a sentiment into the state, they will have to spend money; they will have to go off the gold standard; they have to introduce social provisions for the masses; they have to take care of the people that the Tories don’t regard sociologically as part of their nation. They’re there to do that. This means there will be inflation. This means that the economic divisions between the classes will lessen. This means you will have a more egalitarian society whether you like it or not. Other people say that’s inevitable, given the access of the masses in modernity in the 20th century.
Later on, although they were in the same decade, Cowling writes another book after Impact of Labour and this is called The Impact of Hitler. This is British foreign policy. This is probably his most controversial book, really, and the one for which he’s widely known for outside of purely academic circles. The Impact of Hitler: British Diplomacy and Foreign Policy, 1933–1940. It’s a very provocative book in many ways. All of these books were published for the most part by Cambridge University Press or the University of Chicago, which brought out a well-known edition of this particular book.
The thesis of this book is that the British were reacting to the emergence of ferocious new Caesarisms, which is how Cowling looked at Fascism, on the European continent in the 1920s and 1930s in various ways. What really mattered was the national factions within the leadership of the Conservative Party. Don’t forget that everyone who knows anything about the history of this country in the 1930s knows, Churchill and his group were complete outsiders during that period and were regarded as semi-lunatics, and wild-men. It used to be said by ordinary Tories in the mid-’30s, “You’re not one of those ghastly Churchill men, are you?” when the met people who they thought that might be. Because Churchill was an outsider and he wanted to make trouble and wanted another enormous bloodbath with Germany, which much of that entire generation was determined to prevent occurring, given the fact that they might have fought in the first one between 1914-18 or lived through it or relatives of theirs died in it and so on.
What Cowling’s thesis is, which is deeply unpleasant in relation to mainstream center-Right opinion now, although he was never a man who was really bothered whether people thought he was pleasant or not. There was a degree to which he thinks the whole history of the Second World War and what followed it has been ludicrously sentimentalized — and he’s a totally unsentimental individual who hopes to try to see that they remain clear — and also that it’s been written from a Labour point of view.
In other words, the view of the Atlee administration, the view of people who were in opposition, and in quite minor opposition, up until the national government of 1939-40 and essentially Chamberlain was completely failed. When they came in . . . the radicals in the Labour Party, people like the young Michael Foot, who wrote this book/chapbook/pamphlet called Guilty Men, the appeasers . . .
He thinks that Labour conquered the mental space in Britain long before they formed the absolute majority elected dictatorship, which is how he sees democracy, between 1945 and 1951. Labour, of course, through the Nationality Act of 1948 begins the process of mass immigration initially from the old empire or the Commonwealth, which results in the society we have now. So, Cowling believed that Labour is crucial in its replacement of the Liberal Party at the center Left opposition within the British state and its regime.
The interesting thing is that a lot of Cowling’s analysis of politics is Machiavellian in the sense that power and self-interest on behalf of wider groups are what politics is about. He doesn’t believe in any of the nicer and more moral constructions that people do it for others, that they do it for the esteem of others, or have for them, that they want to serve the public good, as John Major once said. He’d regard that as tawdry rubbish put forward by a miserable loser. So, his view of everything is sort of slightly ferocious and acidic.
But his analysis of this country’s decline, which is a sort of internalized and microscopic version of Correlli Barnett’s thesis in The Collapse of British Power, which deals with the same events in a more narrative-based, wider, less narrow, historical contingent. Both very similar. Both upper middle class/actually upper class men, both ultraconservatives of ??? British culture, both outsiders in relation to the Britain that already been created by the middle of the last century, never mind before.
Don’t be fooled by the fact, as many Leftists would, that there are lots of blue-blooded people who still run structures in this society. The class that once ruled in this country until about 1920 is gone. And when it’s gone like in the Soviet Union or previously like in revolutionary France, ??? but they’re gone, and it’s now a mass bourgeois, liberal society. Which in his way of looking at things has been ethically and culturally proletarianized. And that’s what you have, if you take away the cant and the soft words. So, that’s the thesis of that book.
The other thing about the book that shocked a lot of commentators at the time is that there is no moral judgment about Fascism. Hitler’s seen as a ruthless leader, growing up on the streets in post-war, post-1918 Germany, 6 million the German unemployed, men rotting in doorways, men without feet, men living in cardboard boxes. He offered them hope; he offered them vengeance; he offered them a little group to hate and blame it all on. He regarded it as axiomatic. ??? The Germans aren’t meant to have democracy anyway. These are views which are almost never even expressed now. There’s also the idea that in a sense that movement represented Prussianism from the street, a return of the Second Reich in a very virile, forceful way because it in some ways lacked the polish of the old elite.
In many ways, as a Briton, he was able to figure (???) in his analysis of that era and of that particular movement, which in many ways has become the most notorious movement of the 20th century, hasn’t it really, even today. Even though it was completely defeated and obliterated in 1945. It’s strange how it’s still alive at least in the mental state that swirls around. More people couldn’t tell you who de Gaulle was, couldn’t tell you who Roosevelt was. More people know who some supermodel is dating than who was Prime Minister in 1940. But they all know about that particular dictator. It’s quite strange how it’s gone outside history and become sort of part of the generalized psychopomp and mass culture. It’s always a sign for the historian if they don’t play those sort of demonic games and if they adopt a hard-headed, unsentimental attitude. Many liberals believe they adopt that attitude because they’re slightly sympathetic to it. In the case of someone like Alan Clark, who Cowling knew very well, that was not a completely uncharitable view.
Now, Cowling wrote this book in which he basically said we should not have fought Germany — and he later (something) in a Sunday Telegraph article — we should have done peacefully in 1941 after we were defeated in France, we should’ve been left to one side, we would have kept the empire, (something) turned mercilessly against Stalinist Communism and probably defeated it without another front. This was a revisionist, a soft revisionist, thesis, but a very revisionist one for which he was demonized and subject to quite a degree of opprobrium. But if you live at heights, in a tower, at a Cambridge College, these brickbats of outraged polytechnic thoughts don’t really shatter your windows do they? So you only heard it in a muffled roar in the distance, really.
That was certainly the most “demonic” and “near the edge” work Cowling ever did. It’s interesting to note that it was sold by all sorts of groups all over the world way beyond the portals of the University of Chicago Press or Cambridge University Press. The most extreme National Socialist organization in the United States called the National Alliance led by William Pierce actually sold Maurice Cowling’s The Impact of Hitler. He understood intellectually where it was coming from, even in a dissentient way.
So, in a way, Cowling is prepared to be heretical. Cowling is prepared to do what soft Leftists do. They basically say, “No enemies on the Left.” When Clare Short once said when Communism had been destroyed, “Communism has gone down, but Marxism has not been beaten.” That, in many ways, is the difference between the Left and the Right. Moderate Leftists who do not like the politics of communism, its harshness, totalitarianism, viciousness, ???. They’re like O’Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four. But they are prepared to look at, to think about and to use the theoretical ideas of an enormous range of Marxists, from Gramsci to Adorno to ??? and so on. They’re not frightened of ideas.
Whereas the conservative tradition, largely, you know, Scruton and Oakeshott are all right, but if you go any further out than that, it’s regarded as terrifying, and you are supping with the Devil. And you have to have a very long spoon in order to do that. So, in a sense, he’s reacting against that type of hypocrisy, the idea that some ideas are respectable and others are not. Where, as far as he was concerned, they’re all ideas. And many of them mask the urgency of power.
One particular claim that certain liberals were not slow to make, they certainly were, considering he was a man who debated life, was that there’s a sort of nihilistic structuralism to this. That in a way, what are the absolutes that he believes in? I once said that he was a Tory like this, and he just laughed, which is sort of an endorsement, and there’s a complicated element going on there. Although he believed that socialized religion was inevitable, was necessary to hold civilization together, and its loss through secular erosion and relativism in this society was what has led to what we’ve got, that was his view, how firm his own beliefs were in high Anglican Christianity is difficult to say, but of course there are Right-wing forms of personalized skepticism or atheism or just non-committal, they keep it private, which are different to the Left-wing and liberal versions of those forms.
The leader of French integral nationalism in the 20th century, Charles Maurras, leading a French fundamentalist neo-Catholicism really, he was in all probability an atheist. Why? Because certain people of his temper who can’t believe themselves, they don’t believe that the structure of their civilization should be torn down just because they have a prior disbelief. So, they are constructivists.
In other words, they don’t believe that all of history is reducible to my consciousness about it at a particular moment, because one’s part of an interconnected continuum that pre-exists one and that will post-date one and so although one’s own private views are important to ourselves and to one’s circle, and so on, they are not necessarily culturally determining factors. That’s an interesting attitude because it means that even people who are skeptical about the Christian inheritance, which you could say is the vast majority of socially-minded and liberal-minded and ??? intellectuals and their feminist and other ??? later, all were, doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to then go on to believe that you tear the whole thing down.
Enoch Powell, who had a little bit of a parallel career inside politics to Cowling, both ultra intellectual, both spare, both slightly Puritanical men, both ascetic, both very hard-minded in the nature of their personal discourse and thinking. Just for the mind. Powell could speak ten languages and wrote ten to twenty academic books and yet didn’t really have a proper academic career and just loved burning people. His last book at the end about Christ being stabbed not crucified was just to annoy all sorts of people he knew. Because they’re gadflies, these sorts of people. They do like causing trouble, and that’s just part of who and what they are.
There’s an interesting parallelism at another level though. And there’s an interesting parallelism at another level though. Powell was very influenced by Nietzsche when he was young. Very much so. And, sort of, the ferocity of that thinking, and the fanaticism of that thinking certainly appealed to him, although he later softened and moved away from it. Cowling was never sort of formally influenced by Nietzsche, because part of him had a disdain for Continental Europeans in that very old English, sort of British, way even though mentally he was very aware of their achievements, but he would argue ??? Nietzsche ??? and that was part of his strength. So, he once said to me, “I don’t mind a spot of bigotry, you know? As long as it’s in a good cause.” There were always sort of John Taylor type ??? that were always there in the background, because he regarded them as having nerve rather than just a floating sort of semi-visual definition of identity.
One of the things that’s very important about all these figures is that they’re great characters. One thing you’ll notice about English and British life now is how levelled down people are. The great monstrous characters of the past seem fewer and fewer, and many of the attitudes that they had–their crankiness, their difficulty, their indomitable character and so on–seems to have disappeared as well. Powell . . . It needs some particular mention how Cowling… You had these sorts of figures. ??? There’s just no way around it.
Now, on the positive side, not what you’re against and what you deconstruct, but what you build, Cowling went back to a Christian position. “Went back” may not be the correct. Cowling may not have really renounced it in the way Powell did earlier, so it was less of a mental moving back. But still his last three books which appeared in the 1980s, 1990s, and the first year of this decade (2001) were books about the Anglican Church and its ideas and its ideology as he perceived it, its theological praxis.
Don’t forget this is a church, which in many ways is a combination of different things. A bit of (something), a bit of national compromise, it contains the Protestant anti-clerical element, it contains semi-rationalist Protestant clerisy that’s establishmentarian and almost has no beliefs except the prism of power with a morality in the background, has an Anglo-Catholic wing, of course, some of whom have formally left for the Roman Church now, and it’s a medley from a hardline theological point of view. It’s a dog’s breakfast of an organization really, for political reasons, where the Protestants and the Catholics pull at either end, but those that align against the liberals within the church dislike them more than each other.
In some ways it’s a perfect organization to express Cowling’s view of life, where ideas are in the background. Some people are purely animated by them, but they are very rare, and even most of them are lying to themselves and being rather puppet-like, sort of view of the way things happen.
But, in actual fact, his three books, which if I were to put all of them on the bar here would be at least this high, all three of them . . . And yet, it seems such a dry subject, the internal high, high politics of the semi-aristocratic leadership of the Anglican Church for 150 years. Most young undergraduates would be gagging just at that description, and yet it’s a fascinating collection of books, because of the characters of these men, the intellectual violence of their disputes, the belief that they influence the inner mindset of the inner elite of the empire’s last days, and that’s what Cowling’s concerned about.
He’s not concerned about what the masses believe. The masses believe what they are told to believe. He’s a pure elitist. Eighty percent of people have no ideas. They just conform to the political correctness of the hour. They conform to the liberal humanist PC rhetoric now, which screams over the telly towards them and in every other media, because they are going to conform to whatever view. They would have conformed, as they did in the past, to a national, semi-racial, patriotic old style view of Britain, which is now regarded by many people as a slightly monstrous attitude, although probably in his heart, it’s what people like Cowling and Powell really believed about this country in fact, and it’s just a truthful statement.
Now, these books are deconstructivist texts, in my opinion. These books are his attempt to put forward his agenda. The dilemma he’s facing, of course, is almost complete liberal takeover of the mental space of the Anglican Church. But, of course, because he believes ideas dominate the mind, and the mind is a subconscious of the brain, and therefore what elite brains think is of importance way out of proportion to the small number of people they talk to and write for. Because, rather like Shelley who said that poets are the unacknowledged legislators of mankind, he believed that people who produced theories with which all the other middling minds speak and think control the agenda. They don’t control it in any personal way. It’s not their property. But they control the remit and the nature of the debate.
The total collapse of Anglicanism into liberalism, the total collapse into secular humanism whereby almost any Christian element is completely removed, whereas the important thing about religion to the Cowlings of this world is its mysticism, is its irrationalism, its appeal to that which is beyond and therefore can’t be argued about, its hieratic possibilities, that element that says, “Believe!” and is beyond debate. So, you have the strange element, which is always the paradox of the intellectual, particularly the (???) intellectual position, that a man who is as theoretical as anyone you could ever meet ends up justifying the organicism of belief and the leap into faith, as Kierkegaard would have it, beyond any possibility of complete rational gainsaying, denial, equivocation, or misstatement.
You come back irreducibly in all Right-wing thinking to, “What are you to base hierarchy upon?” What do you base the possibility of transcendence within hierarchy upon? Brute force? Law? Systems of faith? If a system of faith, what system of faith and why and how are people to believe in it at the level of the elite, an intermediate or middling group (very important in modern societies, of course; now dominant, culturally) and the majority? And how do you hold these people together? And what for? And Cowling would be Machiavellian enough to say, “And what lies do you need to tell them to hold them together?” Because he believed politics was partly about that.
He used to always get very contemptuous when people used to say “Politics is such a higher . . .” because they’re such frauds! And he would say, look, they are moving within a vortex of power where they have to face off against three or four different tendencies, some of which may resort — certainly outside of this country and speaking of a few years back — to physical violence. And there’s no proving of truth in that area. That’s not what they’re for. That’s the role of a philosopher, or a philosopher-king in the Platonic sense, not a British cabinet minister in the 1930s.”
I once asked him what his view of the extreme Right was, and he said, “What, you mean people like Mosley?” I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, they are essentially movements that are cut off from what I consider the Right to be.” And Oswald Mosley came from the inner aristocracy of course. And he said, “When you go outside Parliament, when you go outside the structures of the British establishment,” this is his thinking, you go into the working class, you go into the masses, and they never have any power. They can create a lot of force, but they never have come to power in our country.
During the Revolution, the one of the political sort we had 400 years ago, the masses were energized just for a small moment, and then the dictatorship closed, once the monarchy had been removed. And once the dictator was dead, his son was put in by the army council. They realized he was small and a weakling, and they got the monarchy back very quickly.
Cowling approved that. These radical Parliamentarians and Puritans and ideologues of the day realized there was no strong man to hold it together, so they immediately opened up to the old order again and said, “Take it back. There will be no recriminations. There will be no show trials.” The man who stood for the execution of one king stood to salute another one coming in.
That was the elixir of Englishness as Cowling regarded it. The ability to, even in very theoretical minds, people with very theoretical and intellectual minds, put that intellect on no account in moments of national strife and to embrace the reasons which in a way are sometimes purely physiological and irrational, viewed in liberal, rational humanist terms where every decision that every person makes is based upon a rational calculation of utility, of outcome, the moral notion that is very consequent to liberal thinking now, philosophically and ethically, called consequentialism, whereby all that ever matters is the consequences of a particular action. The total reversal of the prior religious view that what matters is intention.
If you run a child over and you didn’t mean to, it’s manslaughter which is punished in most Western European countries in a quite minor way. Tell that to the mother of the child that’s been run over. Whereas, if it can be proven that intentionally the driver put his foot down because he’d been writing on a blog how he disliked that child and this sort of thing and there’s intention there then that’s completely different and is perceived as such. So, if you have intention of mind behind an action . . . From the religious view everything is prior, and the more radical the religiosity, the more the meaning of life is determined before one even starts thinking about how one might agree or disagree with that.
The liberal view that you have a heuristic way of looking at things, you make them up as you go along, that everything’s relative in relation to everything else, that life is existential and not essential is the opposite of what he believed. So, in a strange way, you end up with very theoretical, very abstract ideas based upon empiricism, based upon deep historical knowledge of texts and analysis of the psychological motivations of individual politicians and clerics, most of whom no one’s ever heard of.
Cowling died a couple years ago and got some major obituaries in The Times and The Telegraph. A rare ???. He certainly, in my view, misunderstood that the libertarians who had largely taken over the Tory party in the post-war period, although he would have analyzed them quite correctly as extremist liberals of a different sort. He didn’t quite realize that the ruthlessness and the ability to shape-shift and change positions which has seen Michael Portillo morph from an allegedly Right-wing Tory Defence Minister and hate figure of the Left, to Diane Abbott’s best mate and they sit together on a divan in a television studio. It’s a strange transformation to occur. Cowling would actually be amazed by the extraordinary cynicism in such a move for a man who professed hard-edged, no-nonsense, and a complete sort of spare, unshuffling attitude towards things. That’s an interesting parallel.
The cynicism of, what intellectuals call, ordinary people can often take the breath away from an intellectual cynic. That’s an interesting conceit. Just as intellectuals can change their positions so quickly in a way that bedazzles people who are not dominated by ideas.
I know I reacted in what is called a salon when I was 18, and I realized that people who call themselves intellectuals had their own class system. They’d talk about intellectuals and ordinary people. Who are these ordinary people? I suddenly realized the word was divided for them into those that lived purely the life of the mind and the rest. All groups have their inclusions and their exclusions because you can’t have a discourse without it. All groups rely on ordering who’s in the group, who’s outside the group and so on.
So, I think he misinterpreted the changes in the Conservative Party, which in some ways was his great hope. His great hope was that the Conservative Party has no views. The Conservative Party is. And therefore, in his way of looking at it, anyone can come to power within it. He’d be very displeased with me. He’d say, “You’ve been a fool. You’ve been too honest. Honesty is never a good idea in politics ever.” This is his view. He said, “You should have completely hidden what your actual views are.” He said, “You’ve been mingling with extreme politicians and gone out to the fringes. You should have stayed inside and chiseled your way out.” This is his way of thinking.
But the problem with that view, and this has happened to legions of Tory MPs and others, in the old days they could have their little groups like the Monday Club and so on on the Right-wing of the Tory party. Those views don’t even exist anymore. (??) When Iain Duncan Smith became leader, and the party voted for him to be leader because he resembled the people who are voters of the party, and they wanted him. And then they realized his sort of rought sense of humor of this block of wood, you know, and was sort of completely unelectable in mass terms. And there was a coup. All the politicians got together in the Commons, never mind the, never mind the public. They had a coup to get Howard in, because he was just a bit freer with the medium.
In a strange sort of way, that sort of palace killing was the sort of politics that Cowling lived and breathed, but I think he misunderstood the importance of mass society. In late modernity, he overestimated the corridors of power and the influence of a tiny, little microscopic elite and the divisions between them. I think, possibly, before 1924 – and don’t forget many of his books are written in a politics that precedes the modern world as we conceive it now – his way of looking at things was much more salient. But now I think increasingly it doesn’t matter. I consider this country as ruled by one party. And it has three wings. And the Liberal Democrats in the middle. They swivel and provide the ideas for the other two blocs, although they can’t ever get in, except (???).
And the blocs are class-based Center-Right, the south of England and environs, the bourgeois class; center-Left the north of England, southern Wales, bigger cities, and so on. They move around each other. Ideologically, all of these parties pushed together believe in 80%???. They’re all secularists, they’re all humanists, they’re all egalitarian to a degree, they’re all in favor of the EU, they’re all in favor of multiculturalism, they’re all in favor of migration. You have multiculturalism because you have migration, not the other way around and so on. As you go out towards the margins of the Labour Party, the American domination of the consensus as it is, that becomes more rancid, that becomes more adversarial and the people just drop away there, that is true. And there are other areas where that meme or model – particular models always break down in human affairs – but the point I was speaking, that’s true, we’re ruled by one party with three wings. And I don’t think he really grasped that.
So, like all political thinkers and political philosophers, there’s a sort of Wagnerian moment at the end, you know. ??? He sat with Enoch Powell in South Down when he lost that seat in Northern Ireland over Paisleyites in the Democratic Unionist Party, who are now the hegemonic party amongst the Unionists in Northern Ireland. Running a candidate against him purely to defeat him. Because they didn’t like him, because he’s an Englishman, and an outsider and somebody who advocated fusion with the rest of Britain where they wanted to devolve Protestant power inside Ulster. All these divisions, that don’t matter anything really to people over here, but for them it’s absolutely crucial! Powell sat there, watching the votes, watching the baggage of his whole political career, his decades as an MP. He said that, “All political careers end in failure.”
Of course, that is true. That is a true viewpoint, metaphysically. Because broadly speaking, with the exception of the most radically totalitarian elements within fascistic ideas, the Right is anti-utopian. Look at you people. You’re not capable of perfection. And all attempts to do that are a Procrustean affair essentially. ??? That is, ultimately, the most radical Left-wing line. And so, in a sense, a slightly morbid and pessimistic attitude towards human folly and the imperfection of political structures is Right-wing.
Cowling’s influence, I think, is interesting because despite his beliefism, despite the fact that very few people outside of academic life have heard of him, despite the fact that he’s a difficult and cryptic customer, on the page and in life, he does point to one interesting thing and that’s the combination of metaphysical conservatism and Right-wing radicalism with pure theory, the rejection of pessimism and anti-intellectuality, which are largely associated with conservatives to many people, particularly on the Left. Many people I knew joined Left-wing groups when they were young, because they thought the Right wasn’t interesting and wasn’t interested in ideas. Don’t forget many people’s ideas are quite superficial. Why do you think that . . . when I was at university the Left dominated everything. Absolutely everything. Now the Left, in a hard Left form, is very small and very attenuated.
I knew a lecturer in sociology at the polytechnic in North London, one of the most Left-wing institutions in Britain, and at that time we found ??? in North London where all must have degrees. Degrees in golf, degrees in hairstyling, degrees in peanut butter, you know. You fill in a form and get a PhD in nuclear physics back by ???. 50% will have degrees soon. That’s what Brown wants. You know, that’s the way it’s going. And, of course, if you look at it, the sort of academicism that Cowling represented was the complete reverse of that. He would have advocated for fewer universities. He said to me, “The polys are just for training people to fix cars! Get rid of a few of these universities! If everyone can get a degree, it becomes meaningless.” Indeed, there’s a new tendency isn’t there, among very posh people, like Diana, and this sort of thing, not to get degrees, because everyone’s got them, so they must not have one, you know? It’s the reverse of the thing. Now some social critics would say they’re not getting anything they need. So, there is a degree to which that which everyone has doesn’t mean anything. Why are telephone boxes in mass estates vandalized all the time? Actually they’re an important resource for people. Because no one owns them, no one’s bothered about them, no one cares for them, and they’re the first thing to be trashed. The fact is, when wealth is socially based in that way, no one will look after it.
But I think Cowling is important, particularly for young people now who are interested in Right-wing ideas and interested in theoretical ideas. There’s ???? on the internet, recently respectable. And this idea that culture, civility and high intelligence go together with Right-wing attitudes, that’s very important.
The last thing I’ll say is that he believed in having a good time. He always believed in baiting the Left. He always believed in being a monster a bit, you know. People would say to him, “Don’t you feel we should apologize for slavery?” And these sorts of things and he would say, “Why? Why should be apologize? I could do with a few slaves here at this college” he would say. He’d say, “You want to be one of them?” And they’d sort of freeze. This is the kind of person he was. He was like the uncle at a family party that no one wants you to be introduced to. “Oh God, it’s him!” That was the sort of attitude that the world had towards him, and I think that’s a good thing.
I’ve known a few people in my life like him, but they’re very few and they’re people of great power. When they enter a room, everyone else knows they are there. When they say something everyone else listens even if they don’t like it at all. And when they leave the room, people say, “Did you hear what that chap said?” But they don’t forget the person, you see. He’s like a sacred monster.
Three people are out there in politics like him. One was Enoch Powell. One was Maurice Cowling. One was not very well known, a man called Bill Hopkins. He’s Welsh, and he’s one of the Angry Young Men. He’s very interesting. What I’ll say is the importance of these great, sacred monsters of the British intellectual Right. You won’t hear these names on Radio Four; you won’t hear these names in The Guardian; you won’t hear these names in The New Statesman. These individuals have been airbrushed out of history. But they’re still there, and they do represent either a flame that can be lit for the future, or they’re the echoes of the last embers of what this society once was.
Cowling wrote for The Daily Mail. The problem with populist discourse, though, is you have to deny that you’re a monster and you have to simplify things to such a level. But he would have written for The Sun, as Powell did, as Alan Clark did. Write for The Sun, write for The Times Literary Supplement. Why not? Why not? Do you know that if you write for The Daily Mirror, there’s a Red Book — a Red Book of course for the Mirror. Every sentence has to be comprehensible to a 14-year-old child. No sentence must be multi-clausal, the journalists are instructed; it’s on their screens. I was once taken around The Sun in Wapping by Garry Bushell, who was well-known for certain attitudes and certain thought. And Garry said “I’m gonna muck in for 88 grand a year, see, for writing utter . . . ” In front of all the news desk.
The Sun was quite interesting. Because half of them had little Dickie bow ties on. They were all public school boys. And half of them were working class white boys. And you could tell the combination. And in the background you had, you know, put their hats on or something. And they had these famous front pages, all around the office. In front of these dark areas at the back obviously, where no one had any privacy, and everyone eating their sandwiches and watching, and this sort of thing.
Bushell took me around to look at these things, and it was quite interesting, because Powell used to write for The Sun; Alan Clark used to write for The Sun. And The Sun has blue book, not a red book like the Mirror, where every sentence must be comprehensible to a 9-year-old. A 9-year old. And if you put script through to the staff that’s got semicolons on it, they send it back and say, “What are you doing? Semicolons! For Christ’s sake!” I must say, Maurice Cowling would have found that sort of atmosphere a bit difficult. But still, ideas communicate to people at different levels. He believes that life’s a hierarchy, you see. The brain’s up here, and most people live down here. They’re purely physical. So, what happens up here filters down there.
I’m very pleased to address a group of young, educated people, and the future is your generation. This society will either go with a bang or a whimper in the middle of this century, within 20 to 40 years. I will be 90 by then, and you’ll be a bit younger than that. A major tide is coming. If we were in 1909, not 2009, a mere century ago, no one could have predicted what is coming. The First World War was coming, the Depression was coming, the Second World War was coming. There was a collapse of traditional European society in this country that was coming. The social, cultural, sexual, psychological revolutions of the 1960s was coming. It’s all coming. And yet no one in 1909 would really know that. And I think here in 2009 changes, totally different changes, but radical changes are coming. Make sure your ideas influence them.
Thank you very much!