Obituary: Lord Beloff

IT WAS characteristic of Max Beloff that less than six months ago in a debate on reform of the House of Lords he was one of the few speakers who had the courage to enter a vigorous defence of the hereditary principle. He stood up for it partly on pragmatic grounds, pointing out that most societies continue to rely on many applications of the principle, but even more important in his eyes was the argument from history. The House of Lords and the hereditary principle represented, so he affirmed, historical continuities in the evolution of British political institutions. At the very least, therefore, a prudent statesman should not "toss the concept out of the window", and especially when he has no idea what to put in its place.

This was typical of Beloff's style of debate - on the one hand provocative, always ready to press unfashionable arguments, sometimes even a shade quirky in his choice of causes to endorse, but on the other hand always committed to a high level of seriousness, resolute in establishing the facts of the case in hand, and confident that intelligent adults are open to persuasion by reasonable arguments. There can be no doubt that his early work editing that great plea for the American constitution, The Federalist, had a deep and continuing impact on his thinking about constitutional politics and how public life should be conducted.

Max Beloff was the son of Simon Beloff, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who then prospered in England. After attending St Paul's School he had a brilliant career as an undergraduate at Oxford where he took a First in Modern History in 1935. He embarked on research for a BLitt, and the results of this work appeared in 1939 as his first book, Public Order and Popular Disturbances 1660-1714, a scholarly exploration of post-Restoration politics in England.

In 1939 he became an Assistant Lecturer in History at Manchester University, where Lewis Namier was still a dominant figure and the young Alan Taylor a colleague. After a short period of military service (his health was not good at this time) he returned to Manchester for a while, but then came back to Oxford in 1946 to the newly founded Nuffield Readership in the Comparative Study of Institutions.

The first holder of this post had to be a specialist on American institutions. Beloff fulfilled this commitment not only by editing The Federalist, but also by publishing much else on American themes, for example Thomas Jefferson and American Democracy (1948), Foreign Policy and the Democratic Process (1955) and The American Federal Government (1959), an incisive account of American politics which became a standard text of its time. It was in this early stage of his academic career that Chatham House published his massive two-volume work on Soviet foreign policy (1948), and for good measure he also brought out in 1954 a spacious survey of European history in the age of absolutism from 1660 to 1815.

At the same time he was actively engaged in the early stages of the development of Nuffield College, of which he had been made a fellow in 1947, in giving tutorials in PPE for several colleges in Oxford, and in discharging his university lecturing obligations. As an undergraduate I well remember attending some lectures of his on American history since the Civil War which, as he tartly observed at the beginning, represented the first recognition by Oxford University of the existence of American history. Sad to say, though immensely learned and instructive, the lectures found few listeners. When there were only two of us left Beloff asked us to let him know should either of us decide to give up so that he in turn could then stop. However, we stayed with him to the end, perhaps held there by his sheer perseverance in ploughing on.

In 1957 Beloff succeeded K.C. Wheare as Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration and left Nuffield for All Souls. By this time his interests were very much focused on American policy in relation to Europe (The United States and the Unity of Europe came out in 1963), British foreign policy and, above all, the passing of the British Empire. These preoccupations were to be foremost in his scholarly work for the best part of 20 years. In 1969 the first volume of what was originally conceived under the title Imperial Sunset as a trilogy on the passing of the Empire came out. This was Britain's Liberal Empire 1897-1921, a work which provided an authoritative and perceptive account of British Imperial policy at the apogee of Empire.

It is not without significance that this volume closed with one of those intimations of decline, the Washington Conference of 1921 when Britain in the face of American pressure for the first time modified its claim to maintain world naval supremacy. A second volume, Dream of Commonwealth, followed many years later in 1989, taking the story down to 1942. Though Beloff never wrote about the concluding phase when the Empire was actually dismantled, he remained a robust defender of what he saw as a "Liberal Empire" and of its great civilising achievements.

As the holder of a chair dedicated to "government and public administration" Max Beloff was perhaps not entirely comfortable. He was after all primarily an historian with very wide-ranging interests, and the area of government activity which interested him most was foreign policy. But then a change of direction in his career and a shift in his political sympathies steered him steadily towards an ever closer concern with public affairs and the practical work of government departments.

Beloff had since his youth been a Liberal, though probably of a Whiggish kind, and he remained a member of the Liberal Party until 1972. But the drift to the left in the Labour Party, the increasingly obstructive behaviour of trade unions, and the damage which he believed was being done by the then fashionable education policies pushed him, like many other intellectuals at that time, towards the radically reconstructed conservatism envisaged by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph.

This shift in his political views was to prepare the way for the final stage in his career, that of the intellectual deeply involved in politics. But of more direct effect at the time was his decision in 1974 to give up his Oxford chair in favour of the position of Principal at the new University College at Buckingham, with the founding of which he had been closely concerned. He had become a strong protagonist of new private initiatives in higher education as the only sure means of avoiding the stranglehold of state control inherent in dependence on public funds.

As the first Principal of Buckingham he had to face the hostility of the then Labour government as well as the scepticism of those who did not believe that such a venture could ever succeed. But when he left Buckingham in 1979 much of the spadework to establish this new and entirely independent institution had been done and it was a matter of satisfaction to him when it received its charter as a university in 1983.

By 1979 Beloff was already closely involved in much of the thinking, writing, and proselytising that was taking place in the Conservative Party and affiliated bodies like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute for Economic Affairs. He received a knighthood in 1980 and in 1981 became a life peer, attaching his title to Wolvercote, the village at the end of the Woodstock Road in Oxford where he and his wife had lived for many years.

He took his duties in the House of Lords very seriously and became one of the outstanding examples in the ranks of life peers of dedicated public service and political commitment. Not that his loyalty to the Conservative Party was blind. He believed firmly that intellectuals in public life (a subject on which he had published a collection of essays in 1970) have a duty to maintain integrity and independence of mind, and should not, therefore, give their support to propositions which are manifestly ill-founded. So from time to time decisions taken by his own party overtaxed his patience and came in for sharp criticism. But I have little doubt that he greatly enjoyed his own "imperial sunset" as a working member of the Lords.

His attendance at debates was assiduous and his contributions frequent, concise and often delivered without notes. He took a close interest in legislation on educational matters, and especially on the universities, and for some years in the early 1980s was an active member of a sub-committee of the Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. His dedication to his work in the Lords continued right to the end, even though in the past few years it must have been a great strain for him to come up to London from Brighton every week, to spend two or three nights at the Reform Club, and then to pass the rest of the time either in the Chamber or in the office in Abbey Gardens which he shared with several other peers. Their diligence must, however, have been less than his, for as he once told me, he generally had the office to himself.

During this last public phase of his career Beloff still continued to write a great deal, much of it directly concerned with issues of public policy, with the functioning of government, and in particular with the constitution. In 1980 The Government of the United Kingdom, written in collaboration with Gillian Peele, came out and rapidly proved to be a highly successful textbook on the subject. There was more work on 20th-century British history and there was a deepening concern with the implications of Britain's membership of the European Community.

This resulted in 1996 in Britain and the European Union: a dialogue of the deaf in which he argued, by no means for the first time, that the past political experience of Britain differed so profoundly from that of its continental neighbours that Britain's membership was bound to remain a mesalliance. This pessimistic assessment found expression too in the last of three lectures which he gave in All Souls in February 1996 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Leo Amery's Thoughts on the Constitution. In this lecture (published as a journal article in 1998) he expressed again his anxieties for the survival of the British tradition of liberal constitutionalism as the country surrendered more and more of its capacity for self-government to a network of unaccountable Brussels institutions.

Max Beloff belonged to a tradition of wide-ranging scholarship which encouraged its practitioners to write for an intelligent and educated public rather than simply for other academic specialists. He had no time for modern social and political science with its passion for models and quantification, nor was he much attracted to abstract moral and philosophical speculation. He remained fundamentally an historian, and of a slightly conventional kind. But his writing made an impact by virtue of its thoroughness, the sheer diversity of subjects that he took up, and his capacity for vigorous argument on practical issues.

As he grew older the controversialist in him became stronger, as was demonstrated by numerous and versatile contributions to journalism. Like many others whose origins were in Eastern Europe he came to love British society and its institutions and felt deeply grateful for the opportunities which a life in England - and much of it spent at its oldest university - had given him. His success as a scholar and academic brought him many tokens of recognition from a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1973 to honorary degrees from universities at home and abroad. Yet Max Beloff remained in many ways a modest and unassuming man, ready to take people on their merits and to treat them as equals in rational discussion.

Max Beloff, historian, political scientist and politician: born London 2 July 1913; Assistant Lecturer in History, Manchester University 1939-46; Nuffield Reader in Comparative Study of Institutions, Oxford University 1946-56; Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1947-57; Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration, Oxford University 1957- 74 (Emeritus); Fellow, All Souls College 1957-74 (Emeritus); FBA 1973; Principal, University College at Buckingham 1974-79; Supernumerary Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford 1975-84; Kt 1980; created 1981 Baron Beloff; married 1938 Helen Dobrin (two sons); died London 22 March 1999.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

music
Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce performs in front of a Feminist sign at the MTV VMAs 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has taken home the prize for Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Paige and Scott Lowell in Queer as Folk (Season 5)
tvA batch of shows that 'wouldn't get past a US network' could give tofu sales an unexpected lift
Arts and Entertainment
books... but seller will be hoping for more
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

    The phoney war is over

    Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

    The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

    Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
    From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

    After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

    Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

    Salomé: A head for seduction

    Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
    From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

    British Library celebrates all things Gothic

    Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
    The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

    Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

    The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

    In search of Caribbean soul food

    Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
    11 best face powders

    11 best face powders

    Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
    England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

    Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
    Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

    They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
    Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

    Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

    Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
    Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

    Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

    The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
    America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

    America’s new apartheid

    Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone