“The shortlist for the 2020 Elizabeth Longford Prize for Historical Biography was particularly strong and highly contested,” the chairman of the judging panel, Roy Foster, has said, “but David Hayton’s biography of Lewis Namier [Conservative Revolutionary, the Lives of Lewis Namier] won through triumphantly. It is a remarkable achievement, providing at once the definitive account of the life of a great historian, a searching analysis of the Central European background which produced him, and a magisterial treatment of Namier’s major interventions into eighteenth-century English parliamentary history, nationalism in nineteenth and twentieth century Europe, Zionism, and much else. The intellectual worlds dominated by this complex figure come vividly alive in David Hayton’s treatment, as does Namier’s challenging, difficult but engaging personality and his complicated private life.”
Reviewing Conservative Revolutionary for the Dublin Review of Books in February this year, Jim Smyth quoted David Hayton’s statement that “few historians were as well known in their own lifetime as Sir Lewis Namier”. But since that lifetime ended in 1960, some biographical and intellectual background is now required.
Ludwik Bernstein Niemirowski was born in 1888 in Russian Galicia. His family were landed Polonised Jews, who in cultural aspiration looked to Warsaw, and to the Austro-Hungarian empire. Although his parents were nominally Catholic, religion played little if any part in Ludwik’s upbringing, and his sense of Jewish identity lacked any religious sensibility; in fact he was to become anti-rabbinical in particular and anti-clerical in general. As a young man he engaged briefly with the politics of socialism and of Polish nationalism and, after he arrived in England in 1908, Fabianism. He later moved to the right – albeit in an unconventional way – actively opposed Polish expansionism, as he saw it, and embraced the Zionist cause, which turned into one of the master passions of his life.
He attended, again briefly, the universities of Lvov in Polish Galicia, and Lausanne, Switzerland, and the London School of Economics, before landing in Balliol College, Oxford, a truly seminal moment in his life. As a naturalised British citizen he changed his name to Lewis Namier. Multilingual and formidably intelligent, Namier failed to be elected a fellow of All Souls because (by private admission) members of college “shied at his race”: the extent of the casual antisemitism which pockmarked his career is shocking, but not surprising. After an American interlude, Namier returned to England just in time for the Great War. He worked in the Foreign Office throughout the war and in the Paris peace negotiations as an expert on east and central European affairs, and it is during this period that his ingrained Germanophobia turned obsessional.
Unable, despite his talents, to secure an academic post, Namier spent the first half of the 1920s in business in Prague and Vienna, and the second half in historical research and writing, funded by foundation grants and personal loans. His first book, The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III, appeared in 1929. And on the back of that volume’s critical reception he was appointed professor of history at the University of Manchester. He never moved to live in Manchester, however, choosing for over a decade to commute from London. Namier was an incorrigible institutional, as well as social, snob. Manchester had a fine history department, to be sure, but it wasn’t Oxford or ‑ at a pinch ‑ Cambridge.
Namier used financial records and other personal details (club memberships, for example) to cast light on the interests of MPs in the 1760s and correlated these with their parliamentary voting records. His conclusion was that, far from being moved by ideas, let alone ideals, these worthy gentlemen were always intent on pursuing their own interests, a state of affairs which did not greatly distress Namier since he thought that rule by social elite was at bottom really the best of all systems.
Namier, Smyth writes, “certainly had a gift for arresting aphorisms. Of the irrelevance of high political principle he remarked: ‘men went [into parliament] “to make a figure”, and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others might eat it’. He coined the term ‘political nation’. He took immense care with composition. Is the result rigorous and ‘polished’, or is it too dense, too overscrubbed? There is no such division of opinion over the quality of the prose ‑ however one may rate his arguments ‑ of a master stylist like Hugh Trevor-Roper.”
The other shortlisted works for the Longford prize were Diderot and the Art of Thinking Freely, by Andrew S Curran, Michael Tippett: The Biography, by Oliver Soden, Prince Albert: The Man Who Saved the Monarchy, by AN Wilson and Eric Hobsbawm: A Life in History, by Richard J Evans (reviewed in the Dublin Review of Books ‑ http://drb.ie/essays/restless-eric)
Jim Smyth’s review of Conservative Revolutionary (together with Neil McKendrick’s memoir of the historian JH Plumb) is at https://drb.ie/essays/scholarship-snobbery-skulduggery