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Cowling, Maurice John (1926–2005), historian, was born in a nursing home at 210 Knights Hill, Norwood, London, on 6 September 1926, the elder child of Reginald Frederick Cowling (1901–1962) and his wife, May, née Roberts. Then living at 176 Camberwell New Road, the family soon moved to Streatham. His father, who had left school at fifteen, was technical assistant to a patent agent, and qualified as an agent himself in 1929.

Education and military service

In 1937 Cowling won a place at Battersea grammar school, being evacuated with it following the outbreak of the Second World War to Worthing and then Hertford. In August 1943 he gained a major scholarship to read history at Jesus College, Cambridge. After his first-year examinations in 1944 he was called up for war service. Attached to the Queen's Royal regiment, he was sent to Bangalore as an officer cadet in 1945. In 1946 he was assigned to the Kumaon regiment and travelled to various garrisons across India; the following year he was redeployed to Egypt as a camp adjutant and then to Libya as a captain. He saw no military action. He returned to Cambridge in January 1948 and completed his history degree in eighteen months, taking firsts in part 1 in 1948 and in part 2 in 1949. He also rowed enthusiastically for the college, aided by a strong physique that he maintained well into later life.

Cowling's early experiences shaped him permanently. The ferociously hard-working grammar-school boy never lost his admiration for the respectable, aspirational values of the lower middle-class suburbs. Then, arriving in Cambridge in mid-war, he fell under the spell of ‘three Anglican reactionaries’, the history dons Kenneth Pickthorn, Edward Welbourne, and Charles Smyth, who reinforced his disdain for liberal-left values. Smyth introduced him to the views of E. C. Hoskyns, that reason could not grasp, or effectively attack, the mystical core of the Christian religion, and also impressed on Cowling—who was already fascinated by power—the historical importance of religion in upholding intellectual and political regimes. Cowling developed a ‘strong polemical Christianity’ and briefly considered ordination (Attallah, 129). Finally, his years in the army broadened his social experience, deepened his admiration for and curiosity about the processes of imperial rule, and loosened his vocabulary (to permanent effect—four-letter Anglo-Saxonisms were to be important and sometimes disconcerting elements in his academic self-presentation).

Journalism and history

After graduation Cowling registered to write a PhD thesis on the policy and politics of British India from 1860 to 1890, and spent time in 1950–51 studying in Delhi, Calcutta, and Bombay. With the support of his college mentor, Charles Wilson, and on the basis of a paper about the economic policy of Bartle Frere as governor of Bombay in the 1860s, he was elected to a research fellowship at Jesus, which he held until 1953. He abandoned the doctorate, though some of the research appeared in a Manchester Guardian feature of July 1954 and an academic article of 1961, on the origins of the Anglo-Afghan War of 1878. Instead he started to read widely in nineteenth-century thought. He fell in with a faction in the university that sought to challenge the developing post-war consensus, becoming influenced particularly by Herbert Butterfield of Peterhouse and Michael Oakeshott of Caius.

Cowling adored the idea and reality of Cambridge and was bitterly disappointed at having to leave in 1953. Having attended Jesus College chapel regularly, he now ceased to be a practising Anglican, though he claimed to experience ‘no recession in certainty about Christianity’ (Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, 1, 1980, xvii). A research fellowship at Reading (1953–4) convinced him that he did not want to lecture in a ‘provincial’ university. He won late entry to the Foreign Office, working for six months on the Jordan desk, but then resigned. In 1955 he became a leader writer on The Times for a year before being sacked. Later he worked more briefly on the Daily Express and Daily Telegraph, and no more successfully, since he would not compromise on either the rebarbativeness of his views or the complexity of his prose style. However, he made close friendships with such hard-hitting conservative-minded journalists as Peregrine Worsthorne, Colin Welch, Henry Fairlie, and T. E. Utley, as well as his undergraduate contemporary George Gale, and these helped to shape his conception of politics. At the 1959 election he sought a political career, as Conservative candidate for the Labour-held seat of Bassetlaw in Nottinghamshire, but was again a failure, finding the blandness and small talk required especially challenging.

Throughout these years Cowling returned frequently to Cambridge and began to supervise undergraduates at the weekends, with great success. Eventually, convinced that he should write books, he moved back to the city permanently, teaching at one stage for forty hours a week. In 1960 Wilson arranged for him to be director of studies in economics and politics at Jesus, and in 1961 he became university assistant lecturer in history. In 1963 he moved from Jesus to Peterhouse at the invitation of Butterfield, the master there. He remained in the history faculty until he took early retirement in 1988 (having been promoted to reader in 1975) and a fellow of Peterhouse until 1993.

In two short books of 1963 Cowling worked out his major intellectual concerns since the late 1940s. The Nature and Limits of Political Science was an Oakeshottian critique of the disciplines of political science and political philosophy. It argued that social science's claim to offer accurate analysis of human behaviour was bogus, and that the political process was far too complex and fluid to be rationalized by theorists, being fully intelligible only to those within the system. Mill and Liberalism was less a scholarly study of John Stuart Mill than a polemic against ‘liberalism’ and ‘the liberal mind’. Cowling's most fundamental hostility was to liberal writers who argued that reason and abstract, secular good intentions could create a more beneficent society. He thought them ignorant of human behaviour, unwilling to admit the self-interestedness of their own prejudices, and self-deceiving about their ability to smooth away the conflicts that would always remain inherent in society and politics. They could not, he believed, see that their views were no more authoritative, no more tolerant of alternatives, and no more likely to ensure social stability than the traditional (usually Christian) attitudes that they dismissed as blinkered but that had underpinned national solidarity for centuries. His resentment of the naïvety and power of the liberal intelligentsia was fuelled by its fervent opposition to the use of force, and its faith in the United Nations, particularly during the Suez crisis of 1956. Declaring personal lifelong guerrilla warfare against solemnity and earnestness, his standard conversational technique was to use ‘irony, geniality and malice as solvents of enthusiasm, virtue and political elevation’ (Cowling, Mill and Liberalism, 1963, xxx).

For the next twelve years Cowling worked hard to produce three books on British history that set out to challenge some widely held assumptions about how politicians behaved—that is, that they responded straightforwardly to either electoral opinion or rational principles. 1867: Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution (1967) was followed by The Impact of Labour, 1920–1924 (1971) and The Impact of Hitler, 1933–1940 (1975). These books argued that politicians acted ‘situationally’, in a rapidly changing context. They emphasized contingency and complexity, and challenged popular liberal-left readings of key moments in modern British history, such as the assumption that democratic pressures prompted the major extension of the franchise in 1867, or the social inevitability of the emergence of a Labour government in 1924. The Impact of Hitler suggested that the guarantee to Poland in March 1939 was the result of a high political calculation swayed by ill-informed indignation among the intelligentsia, and that it led Britain to fight a war on unsuitable terms that permanently weakened her power. The three volumes marked a significant increase in the professionalization of political history, being based on numerous archival collections of letters and diaries, on the grounds that these were the best guides to politicians' motives.

Cowling's seriousness as a historian was often underestimated, since one element of his assault on the solemnity of bien pensant academics was to insist that professional history was an illusion, since all history reflected authorial bias. But this did not mean—as his detractors suggested—that for him writing was just a game. Rather, proper history should involve significant personal reflection on some major problem of human society. Serious academics embarked on a never-ending journey to tackle such questions; certainly he saw himself in that light. By the 1970s he saw his task as understanding the interrelationship of practical politics and ideas, his two lifelong fascinations. He became progressively more interested in politicians' public language and the role played by a ‘clerisy’ of writers and newspaper editors in shaping the dominant mood. Conscious that social stability could never be taken for granted, he became more aware of the difficulties and challenges of political leadership. He vehemently denied the charge that his work, and that of a small number of pupils and colleagues who followed his techniques and who were dubbed the Peterhouse or ‘high political’ school, ignored the role of ideas in politics.

In 1977 Cowling announced that modern English political development would best be understood by charting the relationship between politics, religion, scholarship, art, literature, and morality: ‘the basis for all public doctrine in England in the past century and a quarter’ (Bentley, 343–4). He devoted the rest of his life to that project. To this end, he toyed with a number of ideas for books, but the only output was a three-volume inquiry into the continuing significance of views about religion in modern England. Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England (1980, 1985, and 2001) occupied twenty-five years, and the last volume had to be reduced from 700,000 words. It became all-engrossing because Cowling found the process of studying for it much more congenial than the tiring archival visits of the previous fifteen years. He spent his days in his college rooms, muscularly grappling with books, indeed often physically ripping them apart. Made up of hundreds of essays on the thought of individuals, the work neither engaged with other scholarship nor developed an interpretative model for understanding modern Britain. However, it asserted the centrality of religion to English culture after 1840, sought to rescue unfashionable approaches, demonstrated that opponents of traditional Christianity usually retained crucial religious assumptions and prejudices, and suggested that secularization had been neither straightforward, rapid, nor complete. It reflected his conception of intellectual life as a relentless conflict between minds, most of which were less coherent, original, and effective than they supposed themselves to be. He had long lost his adolescent Christian mysticism, and defenders of orthodoxy as well as their assailants were subjected to pithy, provocative irony. He made clear that his admiration of the former was based mainly on the quality of their enmity towards the latter.

Peterhouse and politics

Cowling's day-to-day life reflected his belief that the academy was an arena for the development, assertion, and clash of opinions. That was the point of his undergraduate teaching style over forty years, which was charismatic but never dogmatic. The supervisions usually took place after dinner, well lubricated with whisky. He swore at priggishness and naïve solemnity, but by example led undergraduates to think and talk deeply about ideas. He ridiculed established authorities, but also prescribed an extraordinary variety of books, including much Marxist and post-modernist criticism. He groaned at pupils' inanities, but with an impish playfulness that hinted at an unusual tolerance for and interest in them. His approach offended some of the more arrogant and panicked some of the less imaginative, but forced most to examine their illusions and look at the world through keener eyes. Peterhouse was already a strong college for history but he made it the most intellectually serious in Cambridge, while the electricity that he generated made him a guru to receptive young men throughout the university, who were encouraged to think that their ideas mattered—and that those of the great and the good were mostly superficial.

Cowling had little time for the solemnities of professional academic life. He never went to conferences and hardly to seminars. He delivered his lectures in a monotone. Believing that colleges were the core institutions of Oxford and Cambridge, he intervened in faculty politics only if he could find a foolish reform to oppose. Promotion, therefore, was not rapid. He was neither very willing nor very competent as a supervisor of PhD students. Advising students to ignore secondary work except if it could be ridiculed, to head straight for the archives in search of inspiration, and to complicate the narrative as much as possible, was an unsuccessful strategy: few of them completed a thesis. His taste for conflict greatly increased divisiveness within the Peterhouse governing body, to the alarm of Butterfield, who had governed more effectively as an autocrat. Cowling was addicted to schemes, and his artless openness about them, his tendency to overplay them, and his sheepish amusement when they misfired, were endearingly Hancockian. For twelve years after Butterfield's retirement in 1968 a conservative faction dominated the college, mainly by preventing almost all new permanent appointments. Key to this strategy was the election of two aged and conservative masters, and in an attempt to pull off the same trick again Cowling secured the post for Hugh Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre, in 1980. Ideologically, this was not the error that was often alleged. Dacre was not a natural reformer, and when he left Peterhouse in 1987 it was more out of touch with the Cambridge mainstream than it had been in 1980. The admission of women in 1984 was not his initiative but the result of a volte-face by Cowling's party undertaken for academic reasons, and on their own terms, once the intellectual quality of arts undergraduates began to decline (now that most other colleges had gone mixed). The difficulties between Cowling and Dacre stemmed instead from Cowling's assumption that Dacre was as addicted to conspiracy and oppositional politics as he was—a self-fulfilling prophecy, especially once Dacre became bored with the social and cultural insularity of the college. The result was a long-running and increasingly public slanging match which both men found immensely life-enhancing.

Throughout these years Cowling retained his interest in politics and journalism. He sat as a Conservative on Cambridgeshire county council from 1966 to 1970. When Gale became editor of The Spectator in 1970 Cowling became literary editor, writing several pieces critical of the Conservative leader Edward Heath and his pro-EEC policy. However he resigned in 1971 when the acting editor, in Gale's absence, refused to publish Cowling's protest against his publication of an article by Tony Palmer that claimed that the significant question about Princess Anne was whether she had had sex. At this time Cowling was broadly a Powellite, opposed to extra government expenditure, taxation, and European entry. He wanted a blunt defence of the social order, social inequality, and the traditional ‘stabilities and decencies of English political life’ against government interference (as he put it in a letter to The Times, 14 June 1968).

It was often stated that Cowling had a considerable influence on the direction of Conservative thought in the 1970s and 1980s, either personally or in association with academic and political co-conspirators in and beyond Peterhouse. The college was widely regarded as a conservative seminary, partly because several of Cowling's pupils went to work for the Conservative research department or Conservative newspapers. Cowling himself became a more active propagandist in the late 1970s, helping to found the Salisbury Group, which aimed to provide a forum for serious discussion of Conservative political philosophy, and editing the collection Conservative Essays (1978). He approved of the general direction and tone of the Thatcher governments, but Conservative Essays was in part a warning to the party not to place too much emphasis on rigorous laissez-faire doctrines, which he called ‘Jacobin’ and which he felt were likely to be expressed in too unrestrained and socially divisive a manner. He saw Hayek, and many of the philosophical converts to Thatcherism, as painfully earnest and doctrinaire social scientists with narrowly economic preoccupations who lacked perspective, worldly wisdom, and tactical skill. On Margaret Thatcher's only visit to Peterhouse, to address a Conservative gathering in 1977, she waved his intervention aside with the remark that ‘we don't want pessimists in our party’ (Bentley, 288). Later, still anxious to prick illusions, pomposity, and earnestness, he denied that the ‘new right’ had been very original or that Thatcher had transformed Britain, since governments could, in his view, achieve little. He also denied intellectual influence for himself, claiming instead that his various political interventions over thirty years had merely reflected the ‘suburban, backwoods and provincial opinion’ that was ‘the core and heart of English Conservatism’ (Independent on Sunday, 10 Oct 1993).

Cowling's academic and other writings helped to make newspaper commentary on politics much more sophisticated during his lifetime, an achievement that he shared with his like-minded journalist friends—including Frank Johnson, Patrick Cosgrave, and Charles Moore, as well as Gale, Worsthorne, Welch, and Utley. Though in term-time he maintained a bachelor lifestyle in Peterhouse rooms, in the vacations he lived with Gale and his wife in their houses in Wivenhoe, Essex, and then Tattingstone, Suffolk. He also rented a flat in The Albany, London, from Peterhouse, the landlord. The main attractions of Wivenhoe and Tattingstone were political gossip, poker, and the salon run by Gale's wife, Patricia Marina (Pat), née Holley, daughter of Charles Francis Holley, cable manufacturer. She and Gale were divorced in 1983. Cowling married her on 5 September 1996, though they had been lovers for decades previously; he was always particularly close to her youngest son.

Retirement

On leaving Peterhouse Cowling retired to Caswell Bay on the Gower peninsula, and he hardly set foot in the college again, reflecting his iron will and lack of nostalgia. On becoming Olin visiting professor of religion at Columbia University in 1989 he discovered the ideological and financial attractiveness of parts of the American university system. In 1993 his admirer Hilton Kramer arranged for him to be distinguished service professor at Adelphi University, but a heart attack in 1996 led to retirement from Adelphi and a triple bypass operation in 1997. From this point he lived almost entirely in Wales, especially after a second bout of illness in 2002, which left him weak. Quiet domestic life was no hardship to him, for though always willing to be sociable he was at his most content in a room with lots of books, a telephone, and whisky for the evenings. He died at the Singleton Hospital, Swansea, on 24 August 2005, of angiodysplasia of the colon and cerebrovascular disease. He was survived by his wife, Pat.

Jonathan Parry

Sources  

N. Attallah, ed., Singular encounters (1990), 128–48 · M. Bentley, prologue, Public and private doctrine: essays in British history presented to Maurice Cowling, ed. M. Bentley (1993) · P. Ghosh, ‘A bibliography, 1948–1991’, Public and private doctrine: essays in British history presented to Maurice Cowling, ed. M. Bentley (1993), 345–53 · The Times (26 Aug 2005); (29 Aug 2005) · Daily Telegraph (26 Aug 2005); (29 Aug 2005) · Sunday Telegraph (28 Aug 2005) · The Spectator (3 Sept 2005) · The Guardian (6 Sept 2005) · The Independent (6 Sept 2005) · WW (2005) · personal knowledge (2009) · private information (2009) · b. cert. · m. cert. · d. cert.

Archives  

CUL, department of manuscripts and university archives, Butterfield papers

 

SOUND

 

BL NSA, documentary recording


Likenesses  

obituary photographs

Wealth at death  

under £117,000: administration with will, 13 Nov 2006, CGPLA Eng. & Wales