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Professor Keith Middlemas: Historian acclaimed for his work on the politics of modern Europe

He was invited to share his insights with Margaret Thatcher, with her eye for a handsome man

In 1970 Keith Middlemas was lecturer in history at the still new Sussex University, with a special interest in European politics. He had already written four books and made his name as a skilful narrator of complex events. He was now asked to write the history of the Cabora Bassa dam project, then nearing completion. Building the dam at a notoriously inaccessible stretch of the Zambezi promised to provide electricity and power for more than the then Portuguese colony of Mozambique. It was the dictator Salazar’s grand project.

The cost was huge, needing international funds and expertise. Anglo-American, the great South African company chaired by Harry Oppenheimer, was vital to success. Work had begun in the 1950s, when more than faith was required. Since 1964 the nascent Frelimo independence movement had added to the natural hazards. There were no written records; most of the story had to be put together from the spoken words of busy men.

It was the sort of challenge that Middlemas enjoyed. Despite discomfort and sometimes danger, he was doing well. Then in April 1974 the “Carnation Revolution” saw Salazar fall; within the year Mozambique became independent. In these crucial months Middlemas, who had talked to all the main players, industrial and political, but was visibly independent, played a critical role as intermediary between the managers of the project, the retreating Portuguese administration and the incoming revolutionaries. The dam was successfully completed in December 1974, and Middlemas’s Cabora Bassa was published the following autumn.

It was a far cry from the Zambezi to the Scottish rivers where the young Middlemas learned his lifelong passion for fly-fishing. He was born at Alnwick in Northumberland, where the family was long established. His father was a solicitor, and Keith’s Northumbrian roots meant much to him. After school at Stowe, he served in the Northumberland Fusiliers, seeing active service in Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, his first taste of Africa. By now old for his years and distinguished in appearance, he returned to Pembroke College, Cambridge; the Master, SC Roberts, said, “I never know if I quite live up to his expectations of me.”

A First in History was followed by appointment in 1958 as Clerk in the House of Commons, joining Robert Rhodes James, who became a lifelong friend. Both found time to begin careers as professional writers; together they also learned how government worked at first hand.

Middlemas’s Command the Far Seas (1961) told the history of the German battle-cruisers in the First World War and The Master Builders (1963) that of four men, Brassey, Aird, Cowdray and Norton-Griffiths, who became the first great international engineering contractors. Changing tack he wrote a sympathetic account of The Clydesiders (1965). These books caught the eye of Asa Briggs, first professor of History at the new University of Sussex, and in 1966 Middlemas was invited to join the department. He was in the middle of writing with John Barnes the first full-length life of Baldwin. This appeared in 1969, increasing his reputation. He now took happily to academic life, and to Sussex.

His writing continued on modern history, particularly industrial history. Diplomacy of Illusion (1972) dealt with Britain and Germany, 1937-39, and was followed by a three-volume edition of the diaries of Thomas Jones (1969-72) and by Politics in the Industrial Society (1979). After these came Power and the Party (1980), Industry, Unions and Government (1984), and then his masterpiece, Power, Competition and the State (1986-91), in three volumes covering 1940-61, 1961-74 and 1974-90. His knowledge and opinions of contemporary politics did not escape those actively involved in them, and Middlemas was invited to share both with Margaret Thatcher, with her eye for a handsome man. He enjoyed close connections with those about whom he might write, but took care to avoid closer involvement.

His first loyalty was always to his students at Sussex, where Rhodes James had joined him in 1968. As he rose to become Reader in History at Sussex (1976) and Professor (1986-98), he devoted himself to teaching hundreds of them over more than 30 years. While passing on his wide knowledge of European history, he never let them feel that history was just about the past, and could draw on his own experience to remind them that it was happening now. He took a keen interest in their careers; an encouraging testimonial from him often led to a first job. He was visiting professor at Stanford (1984) and Beijing (1989), and after his retirement, a member of the Conseil de Surveillance, then Chairman, of ESL and Network.

His students also came to share in the other great achievement of Middlemas’s life, the house and garden at West Burton. With a keen eye for the picturesque and a practical knowledge of all the trades involved in building, he transformed both several times. New walls were built, new trees planted, borders and parterres added and remodelled.

He built a gazebo and an oriental kiosk, largely with his own hands; only occasionally employing professional (and student) assistance. He took a keen interest in furniture and pictures, picking up the odd bargain. The local branches of Sotheby’s and Christie’s regularly consulted him; he wrote a book on continental coloured glass, and The Double Market (1975) on the art trade and art thieves.

He was an expert shot, like his father. Like him he represented Britain in Canada in 1958, and was in the English team that won the National Challenge Trophy. He was a sailor all his life, mucking about in boats off the neighbouring South Coast and further afield, and a constant traveller to out-of-the-way parts such as Ethiopia, Bhutan and the Yemen; in Tripoli in Libya he discovered the specialist emporium selling crescents to adorn the domes of mosques; one now adorns the kiosk at West Burton. His last book, As They Really Were (2011), based on lifelike drawings of the citizens high and low of Alnwick in 1831, took him back, with great pleasure, to his roots.

Robert Keith Middlemas, historian: born Alnwick, Northumberland 26 May 1935; married 1958 Susan Mary Tremlett (one son and three daughters; died West Burton, Sussex, 10 July 2013.