Lord Bullock

Author of 'Hitler: a study in tyranny' and founding Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford
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The Independent Online

Alan Louis Charles Bullock, historian and university administrator: born Trowbridge, Wiltshire 13 December 1914; Fellow, Dean and Tutor in Modern History, New College, Oxford 1945-52; Censor, St Catherine's Society, Oxford 1952-62; Chairman, Research Committee, RIIA 1954-78; Master, St Catherine's College, Oxford 1960-80, Honorary Fellow 1980-2004; Chairman, National Advisory Council on the Training and Supply of Teachers 1963-65; Chairman, Schools Council 1966-69; FBA 1967; Vice-Chancellor, Oxford University 1969-73; Kt 1972; Chairman, Committee of Inquiry into Reading and the Use of English 1972-74; Chairman, Trustees, Tate Gallery 1973-80; Chairman, Committee of Inquiry on Industrial Democracy 1976; created 1976 Baron Bullock; married 1940 Hilda Handy (three sons, one daughter, and one daughter deceased); died Oxford 2 February 2004.

Alan Bullock, Founding Master of St Catherine's College, Oxford, was one of the towering intellects of Oxford University since the Second World War. He combined penetrating intelligence and lightning wit with formidable energy and, above all, creative vision.

This rare mixture of qualities led both to practical achievements marked by innovative thinking and executive force, of which St Catherine's was the main example; and to outstanding scholarly work which has interpreted to more than one generation the turbulent history of the 20th century. His intellectual creativity extended as well to the promotion of collective enterprises, the Oxford History of Modern Europe, The History of the University of Oxford and The Fontana Dictionary of Modern Thought, in all of which he played an important part as organiser and editor.

Alan Louis Charles Bullock was born at Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in 1914, the son and only child of Frank Allen Bullock, a local gardener who shortly afterwards became a Unitarian minister, and in 1915 moved to a chapel at Leigh in Lancashire. In 1926, he transferred to Bradford, where he remained until his death in 1964. As revealed in his son's Building Jerusalem: a portrait of my father (2000), Frank Bullock was an autodidact of extraordinary mental power and spiritual feeling, who deeply affected all who knew him.

The young Alan went to Bradford Grammar School and left with a State Scholarship (a distinction in both main papers of the Higher School Certificate was required, thought to be harder to obtain than a scholarship to Oxford or Cambridge). He followed this with an open scholarship to Wadham College, after initial rejection at Balliol, and came up to read Greats (Literae Humaniores, with its emphasis on Ancient History) in 1933, taking a first class in 1936, followed by a first class in Modern History, read in two years, in 1938.

Thereafter, as a graduate scholar of Merton College, he was recruited to work for Winston Churchill's A History of the English Speaking Peoples, but was overtaken by the outbreak of war. In June 1940 he married Hilda Handy ("Nibby"), another Oxford graduate, and, asthma preventing military service, spent four years in war-torn London in the Foreign Service of the BBC.

Two observations suggest themselves about his career to this point. The first, that his astonishing row of academic successes showed that he had inherited, and now exceeded, his father's intellectual powers. The second, that his adolescence and early adulthood coincided with the inter-war period in which the certainties of empire and capitalism that had sustained England's generations before 1914 seemed threatened by revolution, depression and nationalism, all packed into the new Europe which had emerged violently from the flames of the First World War. This background must have exerted a decisive influence on his future intellectual agenda, centred on European issues.

In 1944, New College elected Bullock to a Fellowship in Modern History, which he took up in 1945, serving also as Dean until 1952. The main thrust of his teaching was in British and European history from the French Revolution onward. But the Modern History syllabus ended in 1914 (it has since moved on), and to someone deeply interested in the history of his own time, witnessed by his Hitler: a study in tyranny (1952), this was a restriction.

Participation in the BBC's The Brains Trust made him a national figure, but was not a substitute for a more active role. The opportunity for this came in 1952, when the censorship (headship) of St Catherine's Society fell vacant. The society had existed since 1868 for students who could not afford the high costs of college residence. One of its stipendiary tutors, Wilfrid Knapp, a former pupil of Bullock at New College, persuaded him to apply, and he was appointed over eight other candidates.

A difficult period of taking stock, and reassessment, followed. It was not clear whether the society, which depended on the university for its funds, should continue as it was, with some improvement, or totally change direction, perhaps as a graduate college. Initially, Bullock followed the first course, appointing additional tutors, securing houses where they could teach, adding to social facilities in the society's St Aldate's building, and constructing bridges to alumni.

It was not in Bullock's nature, however, to play safe. He soon developed a much bigger plan, the transformation of the society into a large residential college built on a new site.

He had two master concepts. First, that with the post-war grant system in place, students could now afford residence in college who had earlier been unable to do so. The rationale for the society thus no longer existed. Second, that modern demand for scientific progress made a large new college, half of whose undergraduate members were scientists, a bankable proposition for the government institutions and business companies who would have to provide the necessary funds. Four hundred junior members and 40 Fellows were envisaged.

This was a high-risk policy. Oxford is usually disinclined to intelligent innovation (while sometimes endorsing the ridiculous) and word ran round that the plan was unlikely to succeed - and undesirable if it did. That it did succeed was primarily due to its inventor; but also to his recruitment of powerful allies in university government, a level where he was at home. They included, in sequence, Sir Maurice Bowra at Wadham, Alic Smith at New College, Sir John Masterman at Worcester, and Sir Arthur Norrington at Trinity. Their support helped to make the difficult possible.

The key factor was money. Bullock targeted, among other bodies, the University Grants Committee and the Rockefeller and Ford foundations, but his tireless lobbying of business firms was more important. He worked from lists compiled by his advisers, Sir Hugh Beaver and Sir Alan Wilson. Bullock's bluff persona and Yorkshire accent went down well in circles normally distrustful of academics.

Despite competition from the appeals for Oxford's Historic Buildings and for Churchill College, Cambridge, £1m was raised from business in 1959, and over £1.6m from all sources by early 1960. The outcome was the transformation of the society into St Catherine's College, whose foundation stone was laid by the Queen on 4 November 1960.

Another five years, however, were needed for completion (though its first students arrived in October 1962). The new building, designed by the Danish master Arne Jacobsen, whose appointment at first caused growls from native architects, rose on seven acres in Holywell Great Meadow, purchased for just under £60,000 from Merton College, Oxford's second-oldest foundation. Jacobsen, whose geometrical style and close attention to quality and detail were renowned, displayed both in his new commission; sometimes feigning ignorance of English to get his own way.

The building that emerged was hated by traditionalists, praised by modernists. It also proved to be extremely expensive, squeezing the sum available for endowment. Cuts had to be made, and some building operations initially deferred. These tactics, and timely grants from an American alumnus, Rudolph Light, who gave in all £1.6m, and from the Bernard Sunley Foundation, saved the day. The difficulties involved are graphically described by Margaret and Derek Davies in their 1997 history, Creating St Catherine's College.

Eventual endorsement of the new college by architectural critics, and signal improvement in student academic performance, disarmed opponents, and showed that Bullock was right. His gamble had paid off. His concern throughout with the integrity of the building was rewarded when it received listed status in 1993. New work on the site, as St Catherine's accommodation for students has expanded, has imitated Jacobsen's style, in the sincerest form of flattery.

Bullock became Vice-Chancellor of Oxford University in 1969, the first to be appointed for a term of four years instead of two, as recommended by the 1966 Franks Commission on the university. He showed firmness and dexterity in handling the student disturbances of that frightening time. In the wider world outside Oxford, his chairmanship of the Advisory Committee on Teacher Training (1963-65) and the Schools Council (1966-69) led to his appointment (by Margaret Thatcher as Secretary of State) to chair the Committee of Inquiry into Reading and the Use of English (1972-74), whose exhaustive report was published as A Language for Life in 1975. Supporters of its liberal tone praised it, critics of mixed-ability classes, creativity rather than rigour, and the shedding of formal grammar, all features of the new comprehensive philosophy, were disappointed.

In 1973 he became Chairman of the Trustees of the Tate Gallery, serving for seven years. In 1976, the Government asked him to chair its Committee of Inquiry on Industrial Democracy, to advise how (not whether) trade-union representatives could be placed on company boards in both the public and private sectors. Its 1977 Report treated this step as essential to future national prosperity, comparing its critics to those who opposed the extension of the franchise in the 19th century. Many felt, however, that the subject was not one where Bullock was at home, and the report met with a wall of business hostility. The Government quietly shelved it. In 1981, Bullock joined the Social Democratic Party.

Bullock was elected a Fellow of the British Academy in 1968, knighted in 1972 and made a life peer in 1976. In 1980, he resigned as Master of St Catherine's to devote himself to academic work.

Besides Hitler, revised in 1964, he had already published, in 1960 and 1967, two volumes of The Life and Times of Ernest Bevin. He now applied himself to the remarkable third volume, Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary, 1945-1951, which appeared in 1983, and is required background reading to today's Middle Eastern troubles. In 1991 he published the equally remarkable Hitler and Stalin: parallel lives, a title adapted from Plutarch, which opened for its readers the ghastly comparative history of 20th- century states founded on the use of terror. Characteristically for the author, a revised version in paperback followed in 1998.

Accompanying all this was an active role in the Aspen Institute in the United States and Germany, resulting in his survey lectures published in 1985 as The Humanist Tradition in the West; and acquaintance with leading German statesmen, including Willy Brandt, Helmut Schmidt and Richard von Weizsäcker. A clutch of honorary doctorates, translations of his work, a Légion d'honneur, a Grosse Verdienstkreuz, signalled foreign recognition of his achievements.

Review of Alan Bullock's work shows that he preferred to write books rather than articles, and operated on a large scale. Ernest Bevin: Foreign Secretary has nearly 900 pages, Parallel Lives in its revised version nearly 1,200.

Three intellectual characteristics are discernible. First is the apparently effortless ability to absorb huge amounts of information, whether from the unending Nuremberg documents, the trades-union or Foreign Office archives, or the enormous corpus of primary and secondary printed material on Stalinist Russia.

Second is the ability to arrange this information objectively into convincing patterns, so that interpretation and judgement are always close behind description. Bullock wrote for truth, not for effect, and eschewed the heating up of controversy not unknown in other contemporary historians. Third, overlapping with this, are a breadth of historical perspective, and a force of imagination, which resulted from intuition as much as formal study.

These are characteristics which Leopold von Ranke would have recognised. The older reader also gratefully acknowledges a lucidity and correctness of written English which Bullock's father would have much admired, and is not characteristic of our lax age.

Outsiders often credited Bullock with dictatorial inclinations. His forceful personality led Lord David Cecil, when a Fellow of New College, to complain of feeling like china in a Bullock shop. In fact, however, while Bullock was emotional, and formidable when roused, his inclinations were conciliatory. He was genuinely modest about his singular achievements. In his government of St Catherine's College he worked for agreement, often indulging difficult colleagues to an extent that tried the patience of the less tolerant.

He was perhaps not by temperament an administrator. Detail could bore him. What was observable, however, was a considerable flair for suggesting how a situation could be managed, how an appointment here, a small committee there, could resolve practical difficulties. This constitutional fertility proved invaluable in the governing body, an institution which in many Oxford colleges has tested its chairmen almost to destruction.

Bullock was an acute judge of individuals, and ability. He did not find it difficult to acknowledge the merits of people he disliked, or the limitations of others he warmed to. He was tolerant of failings, and recognisably derived strength from the social embrace of a college fellowship. His pleasures were of the mind and the spirit, not the flesh; perhaps in this, too, he resembled his father. Art, music, architecture, literature, meant much to him. Good food and drink recognisably meant much less. Sitting on a beach bored him. He was uninterested in sport.

An important aspect of his government of St Catherine's was his insistence that the wives of fellows be included in a circle from which, in Oxford's chilly tradition, they might have expected to be excluded. The resulting social harmony greatly helped the development of the new college. His principal and conspicuous support, however, was his family; and, above all, his marriage of over 60 years.

Peter Dickson

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