Obituary: Professor Jack Lively

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
JACK LIVELY - for 14 years Professor of Politics at Warwick University - saw himself, as he put it, as a child of the Enlightenment. His extensive publications include a study of Enlightenment thought, as well as works on Alexis de Tocqueville and early utilitarianism. He was concerned to resist fashionable ideas about the death of liberalism, the impossibility of rational political discourse, and the allegedly crippling relativity of morality.

He was deeply imbued with Millian values - with the importance of self- culture, and of the pursuit of the general welfare within a just liberal political settlement. He told his students that he strongly endorsed T.H. Green's view that they were privileged to have access to higher education (as he conceived it), and that they had a duty both to take full advantage of it and to repay the community for it.

He was genuinely puzzled by anyone who did not find his subject both interesting and important. Because of the depth of his own culture, and particularly of his love of history and literature, his seminars could range over an astonishing variety of topics. One of the courses he most enjoyed teaching, for example, concerned the relationship between liberalism and the novel, uniting two of his particular interests.

Lively became Professor of Politics at Warwick in 1975, having previously held academic posts at Swansea, Sussex and Oxford. He took early retirement in 1989. His decision by no means indicated a loss of interest in his subject - on the contrary, he wanted a greater opportunity to pursue it, and he continued to publish and to teach. He was working on his next book, about the reception of the idea of industrial society in social theory, when he fell ill. His decision was determined, rather, by what he saw as the deteriorating conditions of university life, with its growing emphasis on performance indicators and erosion of intellectual autonomy, which he found increasingly irksome in relation to his vision of his vocation.

That vision was one of personal scholarship, teaching based on real learning, a deep sense of obligation to the community and commitment to the life of the mind. His own scholarship was manifest: apart from his many essays, he singly or jointly produced eight well-known books, notably The Social and Political Thought of Alexis de Tocqueville (1962), The Works of Joseph de Maistre (1965), Democracy (1975) and Utilitarian Logic and Politics (an edition of texts by James Mill and Macaulay, with John Rees, 1978).

His central concerns were with Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment thought, in particular the study of democracy, and the defence of liberal values of rational political engagement and ameliorative social policy. He exemplified the notion that political theory is to be pursued by combining political realism with moral seriousness, to the benefit of many generations of his students and of his younger colleagues, in whose work he took a close and kindly interest.

Although Lively's published work falls mainly in the area of political theory, he came from a generation of academics who did not embrace the burgeoning specialisation characteristic of modern political science. He professed politics. He was therefore well-equipped to act as editor of Political Studies, the journal of the United Kingdom's Political Studies Association, for some six years. His sense of obligation to his subject was also apparent in the formidable number of other tasks he was willing to take on - he had, for example, examined at 13 universities, and contributed extensively to extramural adult education.

He brought to all his academic activities a profound conscientiousness, whether he was insisting that all applicants should be interviewed, patiently clarifying complex arguments for his students, checking the accuracy of his references or discharging the duties of head of department.

Jack Lively's vision of the academic vocation was so sincerely held, and so clearly embodied in his own practice, that he commanded the affection and respect even of those who disagreed with him. As a colleague he provided an example which others could aspire to follow, despite the changing conditions he so much abhorred. As a collaborator he was generous with his time, his friendship, and his ideas.

In these many ways, he made a great contribution to something he valued very highly - the academic community and "the conversation of mankind".

There was something impish, provocative, indeed lively, about Jack Lively, writes Anthony Thwaite. He was well named. It is for others to assess his professional distinction as a political historian, and historian of ideas; but as an increasingly close friend of his, and of his family, during the last 20 years of his life, even I was aware of his quirky brilliance and passion for debate about these matters. He loved talking, and often he enjoyed listening too - though he was apt to pick up one's flaws of knowledge and bias, in conversation, and triumphantly expose one's ignorance. But never with any self- importance or wounding contempt: he had too much generosity of spirit, too much warmth, for that.

He was the novelist Penelope Lively's essential partner, supporter and foil. Though for much of their lives together, certainly for the first 15 or 20 years, Jack had been the more obviously successful one, he had to come to terms with the fact that, since the award of the Booker Prize to Penelope for Moon Tiger in 1987, he was to many people just "the husband of Penelope Lively". It was a situation he handled with admirable tact, patience, and pride.

Jack and Penelope came from very different backgrounds. He was brought up in Newcastle, a working-class boy, winning his way through a scholarship to the Royal Newcastle Grammar School. The school's wartime evacuation to Penrith was important for Jack: he was billeted on a particularly congenial family who (aided by a great history teacher, Sammy Middlebrook) set him on a path which eventually took him to St John's College, Cambridge, where he read History.

It was when he was a research fellow at St Antony's, Oxford, that he met Penelope Low, a recent graduate of St Anne's: she (as many readers will know from her delightful 1994 memoir Oleander, Jacaranda) had been brought up in affluent Anglo-Egypt. After their marriage in 1957, Jack was in turn lecturer in politics first at Swansea University, then at Sussex University, then a Fellow of St Peter's College, Oxford, before finally being appointed Professor of Politics at Warwick in 1975.

Jack was not only a devoted husband but the close, loving and proud father of their two gifted children, Josephine and Adam, Josephine becoming a professional oboist, Adam a writer of both fiction and history. Adam and his father co-edited for the British Council Democracy in Britain: a reader (1994), a highly original collection of texts, carefully and daringly collated, and ranging over the centuries. Jack eventually became a delighted grandfather.

He was a family man, a home-maker, a keen and knowledgeable gardener, both of the large and magically vista'd sloping paradise he and Penelope developed at Duck End, their Oxfordshire house, and, later, the small gem at the back of their Islington house. He was a wonderfully generous host in these places, most memorably at the Duck End summer parties, full of friends both literary and academic, through whom Jack would nimbly tread, dispensing quantities of food, drink and talk.

When I think of Jack Lively now, it is inevitably and sadly of our last meeting, when his illness had taken hold, so that he was somehow shrunk and diminished, though still full of affection; but much more I remember his former self - short, ebullient, bright-eyed, smiling, laughing, talking, standing next to his tall Penelope, to whom he was always so supportive.

John Frederick Lively, political scientist: born Newcastle upon Tyne 15 June 1930; Professor of Politics, Warwick University 1975-89 (Emeritus); married 1957 Penelope Low (one son, one daughter); died London 27 October 1998.

Comments