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Cold War Culture

Intellectuals, the Media and the Practice of History
Jim Smyth
I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd


From the Introduction: How do you get from Ireland in the 1790s to Britain in the 1950s An Explanation

This book has its origins in an intended biography of the historian of eighteenth-century British politics, Sir Lewis Namier, in whom I was interested for mainly negative reasons. My first historical work traced popular politicization in Ireland in the 1790s, or, put another way, it dealt with the content and dissemination of political ideas and their impact upon political mobilization and action.1 That book belongs in the first instance in an Irish historiographical context, but it was inspired and informed also by British Marxist 'history from below', especially by the seminal studies of George Rude on crowds, riots and politicization, by E.J. Hobsbawm on 'social banditry' and 'primitive rebels' and, most espe­cially, by E.P. Thompson's magisterial Making of the English Working Class (1963). Such subject matter held no attraction for Lewis Namier, who once asked a student doing research on the sans-culottes, 'why are you interested in those bandits?' To him 'ordinary men were members of parliament.2

Clearly the history of parliament and of elites is as valuable as the his­tory of Painite revolutionaries, and the detailed, high-precision and en­during quality of Namierite scholarship cannot be gainsaid. The problem, it seemed to me, lay with its assumptions about how politics actually worked. Namierland is inhabited by politicians who are devoid, except at a trivial rhetorical level, of political principle; untouched by public opinion, they are driven rather by the frank pursuit of patronage and pre­ferment. From the standpoint of history from below, or from the streets of west Belfast where I grew up during the Troubles, such discounting of political ideology as a factor in political behaviour appears cavalier, wrong-headed and reductive.

Namier burnt his papers shortly before his death and as my doubts as to the viability of writing a full-dress biography mounted, new questions pointing in new directions persisted in presenting themselves. Why did Namier's reputation reach such heights in the 1950s? As Noel Annan, chronicler in Our Age of the great and the good who ran the country at that time, recalled, 'Namier obsessed us, even after his death'.3 Why did the orthodoxies of the near-monopolistic 'Namier Inc.' (as one journalist dubbed it) give way so rapidly in the 1960s?4 The rise and decline of the Namier School may be in part explained by developments within histori­ography, the impact of Herbert Butterfield's dissenting George III and the Historians (1957), for example. Historians, however, contextualize every­thing, including each other. What were the cultural, intellectual, social and political frameworks within which historians wrote and argued in the 1950s? What did they assume? Attempting to answer these questions thus turned a projected biography of Namier into a study of British intel­lectuals (including prominently Namier himself) in a Cold War climate.

But first, some cautionary tales. Perhaps the best-known advice on the need to contextualize historical writing is E.H. Carr's injunction, delivered in What is History? (1961): 'before you study the history, study the historian [...] before you study the historian, study his historical and social environment. The historian, being an individual, is also a product of history and of society'.5 At undergraduate level, and despite Geoffrey Elton's best efforts,6 Carr's slim, user-friendly, disarmingly self-confident volume long held the field in historiography-for-beginners. As students in Trinity College, Dublin, in the early 1980s preparing for the untaught 'General Paper' (essentially an historiography, or as Aidan Clarke, who set and marked it, once let slip, a codology paper), we were warned wear­ily against citing Carr, who stood accused - rightly - of determinism. I now see that Clarke's boredom with annually regurgitated Carr mixed with an annihilating scepticism about the role of 'impersonal forces' in human affairs. As usual, he had a point. For instance, Butterfield's The Englishman and his History (1944) has typically been seen as a product of wartime patriotism. The inference seems obvious enough. However, we now know that it is a bit less straightforward than that, and that much of the book drew on recycled lectures written shortly before the war.7 Carr asserts that Namier's vision of eighteenth-century English politics is that of'a continental conservative'. In a delayed-action, rather testy response -Carr's book, he says, might more accurately be called What History Is - the American historian J.H. Hexter points out that his colleague Robert Walcott, neither a European nor a conservative, chose to become a Namierite.8 How then is his choice to be explained? In 1948, shortly before taking up a junior lectureship at University College, London, Ian Christie wrote to the chair of the history department, Sir John Neale, that 'Mr A.J.R Taylor here [Oxford] has said he will procure me an introduc­tion to Professor Namier in order that I may get advice on my proposed subject of research. "Thus Christie became a Namierite'.9