Maurice Cowling

Political historian and Conservative controversialist who craved the limelight

Cambridge don, political historian and Conservative controversialist, Maurice Cowling has left an arresting legacy, but hardly a consensual one. Memories are as highly coloured as Cowling's public personality. They stretch from genuine love and loyalty through grudging respect and fear to loathing and contempt. He would have wanted it that way and was so much the architect of his own reputation that one has to accept the situation rather than attempt some "defence" that wishes away the difficulties - personal, professional, political - that he often deliberately created.

The urgency lies rather in trying to make some sense of a long career, now seen entire: one that falls fairly naturally into three segments. Until he was 35, there was no real direction and he encountered several forms of failure. Between 1963 and 1993, when he was Fellow of Peterhouse, Cambridge, he attained his maximum effect and intellectual influence. In the later years he was dogged by illness and spent his retirement, following a brief interlude teaching in the United States, on the Gower Peninsula, where he was cared for by his wife, Patricia Gale, whom he married in 1996.

Commuter-land supplied the background: Norwood in south London. Cowling's father was a patents agent and his own upbringing may have fuelled the famous conversational gambit of later years - "Are you lower-middle-class?" Battersea Grammar School and the need to evacuate at the beginning of the Second World War brought wider contacts and these, plus his obvious intelligence and reading, gave him his entrée into Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1943 where he was taught by the Anglo-Catholic priest Charles Smyth and came under the influence of Herbert Butterfield.

He eventually took his double First in the Historical Tripos following a period in the Army. The latter supplied India and Egypt - important as elements in forming a view of how imperial England ought to be thought about - and gave him a Saxon vocabulary for social analysis that never left him. What to do next proved elusive. He half-attempted a PhD but gave up. He had several shots at becoming a journalist and, though they never turned into a career because he got the sack wherever he went, usually for saying something politically unacceptable in his copy, the tabloid feeling of the academic paragraphs in his later books suggests again a permanent stain.

He tried to win a hopeless seat in Parliament and spent a ghastly year kissing babies and going to dinner-dances in Bassetlaw. Only after returning to Cambridge to teach monumental hours for several colleges did the possibility of an academic career open itself; and it was with the help of the economic historian Charles Wilson, and then of Herbert Butterfield, that he was elected to fellowships first at Jesus College and then, from 1963, at Peterhouse, where he remained for the rest of his working life.

Peterhouse then stood on the brink of a golden period and Cowling helped gild it. He taught several generations of undergraduates over the next 30 years and left an indelible mark on them for which not all of them are grateful. They recall the walk to Gisborne Court or later the windswept rooms in Fen Court and the tightening of the bowels that this always occasioned.

Cowling believed that teaching, like successful dentistry, had its painful side and that his task was to make something better out of the raw material before him. Criticism would always be unfeeling and never stopped at historical argument. ("Don't ever write to me again on lined paper.") Students would sometimes emerge elated as well as relieved; they came out no less often with eyes pricking. They all knew that they had been taught, whether they wanted to be or not. Above all, they had been taken seriously.

It is not a word one associates with Cowling and all the anecdotes that drive his reputation go in the opposite direction, suggesting a certain philistine superficiality. He was, and meant to be, naughtily amusing as a companion and hated the lugubriousness of much academic talk. In private houses unafflicted by academic guests, this did not show: hosts remember beautiful manners and an ability to generate articulate opinions about anything under discussion.

In Peterhouse it showed. He had spent the morning in solitude working with a sort of energy that merged into intellectual violence and often culminated in tearing the pages out of his books rather than slow down to take notes from them. One's heart still goes out to the bookseller who bought his library. He ate virtually no lunch other than the ritualised egg sandwich that hinted at the triple-bypass waiting over the horizon. He read again through the afternoon, often on his balcony at Fen Court amid offprints, cardboard boxes, bin-bags and yesterday's plates. Teaching began at five, gin and whisky at six, and by 7.20, when he lurched off to College Hall for dinner, he had consumed a couple of undergraduates and enough booze for three men. It is therefore not random that most of the Shocking Remarks can be timed between 7.30 and 9pm, except for Wednesdays, when he stayed for dessert and shocked until midnight.

Yet the point about Cowling disappears in the very embarrassments that he enjoyed provoking. The adjective wanting stress is the first one that would appear in the truly terrible note that new undergraduates found in their pigeonhole. "Please call on me on Tuesday evening at six, bringing with you a serious essay on an historical or philosophical subject." He was not serious enough to supply a title or bibliography because Cowling did take the professional aspect of academic work seriously. But he was a very, very serious man with a serious mind and all evaluations that miss that miss everything.

The serious work did not begin fully until after two early polemical books aimed at the crypto-secularism of John Stuart Mill (Mill and Liberalism) and the spurious claims of "political science" (The Nature and Limits of Political Science), both published in 1963. He then embarked, but did not fully realise it at the time, on a trilogy that dealt with the political history of England. The first volume, Disraeli, Gladstone and Revolution (1967), would doubtless have been called The Impact of Reform had he understood that the next instalments would be The Impact of Labour (1971) and The Impact of Hitler (1975).

Each dealt with the phrase he made current, the nature of "high politics", and each gave a structural account, compromised by a biographical method, of a short period of political history in which the lens is trained on politicians acting "situationally" and "rhetorically" in the face of new challenges to their competence and authority. There was much misunderstanding of what he had achieved not least because his prose and inability to organise an argument to best effect gave rise to frequent miscuing of his purpose. All the same, no one now would tackle a similar project without acknowledging the degree to which Cowling changed the questions.

A second trilogy, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, dominated the 20 years after 1975. Not politics this time, but religion - "high religion", if you like - taking the insights and prejudices of the political books and carrying them over into the history of English Christian thought since 1840. Cowling's loathing for secular liberalism and its comfy complacencies - "smelly little orthodoxies" as Norman Stone memorably termed them - found here its ultimate outlet in a chronicle of declining English culture with the loss of Christian teaching and belief at the core of its explanation. The three volumes have all the Cowling characteristics: muddiness of organisation, moments of impenetrability in the writing, yet a compulsive flavour, weight and manifest individuality of voice.

Beyond these thousands of pages, Cowling carried his commitments into the public sphere through his well-known association with Enoch Powell, John Biffen and Michael Portillo, and through Conservative contacts in Central Office, the press and Sheila Lawlor's Politeia. It all gave him a form of public awareness that he always craved and lent him the limelight that he could ignite at will and which would keep the telephone ringing for days.

Coupled with the anecdotage from Peterhouse, however, it all fed into a negative myth: that Cowling did not make it as teacher, thinker, author and historian but only as a lightweight pundit. In fact the story starts elsewhere: not over high table in college or London club, but at the desk and in the archive where the history of one image of England came under review during 30 years of forensic enquiry.

Personally, meanwhile, his death bequeaths a further challenge to his many enemies. Why did such a supposed ogre attract the devotion of very clever and agreeable people? The truth is that Maurice Cowling's complications concealed the warmth and appeal of a disruptive intellectual personality whose effects will be felt for a further generation. The world is a safer place without him, but not a better.

Michael Bentley