Earl Russell

Civil War historian and Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords
Click to follow

Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell, historian and politician: born 15 April 1937; Lecturer in History, Bedford College, London 1960-74, Reader 1974-79; Professor of History, Yale University 1979-84; Astor Professor of British History, University College London 1984-90; succeeded 1987 as fifth Earl Russell; FBA 1991; Professor of British History, King's College London 1990-2002; elected Member of the House of Lords 1999; married 1962 Elizabeth Sanders (died 2003; two sons); died London 14 October 2004.

Conrad Russell successfully combined a career as a distinguished university teacher and scholar with making a notable contribution to the work of the House of Lords. To a degree this mirrored his father, Bertrand Russell, who was to be as famous as an academic philosopher as he was as a political activist, being a leading member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The difference was that, while the father expressed his politics through the vehicle of a pressure group, the son chose the more conventional role of a parliamentarian allied to a political party.

Russell's commitment to Parliament as an institution was one of his guiding principles both as an academic and as a legislator. As a historian he concentrated on the 17th century and particularly on the Civil War; he was unquestionably the leading authority of the period amongst his generation. His 1990 book The Causes of the English Civil War will likely remain the standard analysis of this most turbulent episode in British politics for many years to come.

Other works, such as The Crisis of Parliaments: English history 1509-1660 (1971), Parliaments and English Politics, 1621-1629 (1979), Unrevolutionary England, 1603-1642 (1990) and The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637-1642 (1991) displayed meticulous scholarship and established his professional reputation.

He was one of the last of the traditional historians in both his focus and method. It is now the fashion for historians to take very broad themes, offering fairly sweeping observations, hoping to attract a wider general audience for their work and possibly achieving the added bonus of a television series. Russell was the complete opposite, concentrating on a short period of time and analysing it with detailed precision from a variety of angles.

His established position as an authoritative historian was complemented by also being a captivating lecturer, assiduous seminar tutor and postgraduate supervisor and, not least, a very supportive pastoral student counsellor. Russell was always attentive to his students' needs, both academic and personal. One celebrated example was when one of his tutees was charged with rape. To the college authorities' displeasure, Russell steadfastly supported his student in his protestations of innocence and was vindicated in the stance he had taken when a not guilty verdict was returned.

He also expressed more general concerns about the lot of university students. Russell was appalled by the increase in student poverty. He vigorously opposed the substitution of grants for loans, disentitlement to social security benefits as well as to the introduction of top-up fees. He warned that the quality of degrees was being threatened by students' having to take on long hours of work to sustain themselves. This meant they were often too tired to attend lectures or properly prepare for tutorials.

His compassion was not confined to student welfare. Since 1990 he had been the Liberal Democrat frontbench spokesperson in the Lords on Social Security. He was an appropriate choice given his eye for detail, so necessary in fathoming the intricacies of the subject matter of this particular portfolio.

He mastered the ever-changing complexities of welfare legislation. He championed the cause of single parents and was implacably opposed to the inefficiency of the operations of the Child Support Agency and accurately predicted the many difficulties it would experience. The need for women's refuges also claimed his strong support. During the passage of the Jobseekers Bill in 1995 he pointed out that the concept of a safety net went back to the 1601 Poor Law Act and was not an invention of the Beveridge Plan as was commonly supposed. The Bill, he argued, was too stringent in its application, which would lead to an unacceptable degree of disentitlements to benefit. This, in turn, would result in increases in begging, crime, prostitution, illness and drug-dealing.

Apart from his work on Social Security, Conrad Russell possessed two other attributes as a legislator. He was something of an expert on Lords' procedure. He was a critical opponent of the growing practice of secondary legislation by recourse to broadly drawn "skeleton" Bills. These enable the Government to put through limitless orders and statutory instruments that lay down the details of policy. By such means, he argued, Parliament was effectively bypassed and its will thwarted because there was insufficient scrutiny of secondary legislation.

Secondly, he was a felicitous orator and on his best form was outstanding. A memorable occasion was during the passage of the Bill incorporating Human Rights. The Church of England had campaigned for it but, in the event, sought to be excluded from some of its provisions. Russell devastatingly exposed the hypocrisy of the bench of bishops in this regard.

He usually spoke with only the barest of notes, just a list of key words, peppering his speech with historical references; these went down well for the most part but were sometimes too recondite or contrived and fell flat. He also displayed a very special sense of humour which was much enjoyed by the House but which, again, could be very private and apparently appreciated only by himself. His last speech on 15 September was in a debate on the constitution. Already very ill, he spoke for only three minutes, castigating the poor appreciation of the English for constitutional affairs with three historical references. It epitomised his style.

Conrad Russell was born in 1937, the son of Bertrand Russell, the third Earl Russell, and his third wife, Patricia. He was educated at Eton and Merton College, Oxford, where he read History. He spent most of his professional life in London University, apart from five years as a professor at Yale. He was successively Lecturer and Reader at Bedford College, then at Yale, before being appointed to the prestigious Astor chair in British History at University College London in 1984. His sojourn at UCL was not a happy one and he contrived to be translated to King's College in 1990 - even more convenient for the Lords - where he remained until his retirement in 2002.

He was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1991 but, rather surprisingly, did not gather the crop of honorary doctorates that might have been expected for someone of his standing. There is no doubt earlier he would have cherished an Oxford chair but this also eluded him. In many ways he was the epitome of an Oxbridge don, not least in being somewhat eccentric; for example, he would carry his heavy bundle of papers in a plastic carrier bag in the Lords. This was endearing in its way; some may have found some of his other traits less appealing.

He had a very real sense of history including his personal lineage. He succeeded his half-brother to the title in 1987. He referred to the Lords on occasions as "our House". Although he was a radical in his political outlook and adopted a reformist stance, he had a sensitive appreciation for form and protocol. It was perhaps for this reason he was an outspoken critic of Tony Blair - almost from the outset.

His childhood had been problematic. It would have been difficult enough to have been his father's son, but this was compounded when his mother walked out on the family. Conrad had little or no contact with her thereafter. Luckily he found compensation in his own very happy marriage and was bereft when his wife died in 2003. Her death seemed to have worsened his own poor health. When I enquired how he was coping, he replied, "I get much support from members of the House, it's much like a family."

Institutions were important to him. While at Merton, he organised the Oxford undergraduates in 1956 to join the Trafalgar Square demonstration against the invasion of Suez. Mindful of the importance of appearances he distributed a circular saying, "Ties will be worn on this occasion, preferably Old Etonian."

The political scientist Sir Ernest Barker remarked of Ramsay Muir, a Liberal MP and historian,

he was a professor in politics and a politician among professors. The mixture made his essence, as he, by the fire of his conviction, made it a living unity . . . a scholar prophet.

The same could be said of Conrad Russell.

Trevor Smith

Comments