Professor Neville Phillips

Click to follow

Neville Crompton Phillips, historian and university administrator: born Christchurch, New Zealand 7 March 1916; Lecturer in History and Political Science, Canterbury College (later University of Canterbury) 1946-47, Senior Lecturer 1948, Professor of History and Political Science 1949-62, Professor of History 1962-66 (Emeritus), Vice-Chancellor and Rector 1966-77; CMG 1973; married 1940 Pauline Palmer (one son, two daughters); died Canterbury, Kent 29 June 2001.

It is common nowadays for historians in the Antipodes to see Australia and New Zealand as increasingly detached from their European heritage. They tend to concentrate, naturally enough, on the history of their own countries, which have come to be accepted as belonging to the Asian and Pacific geopolitical milieu. Neville Phillips had different perspectives. Though a New Zealander by birth and fierce conviction, his historical focus and personal values were firmly, if not exclusively, rooted in Europe.

As one of his country's leading historians, and later as a university administrator of intense commitment and wide-ranging influence, Phillips remained powerfully attached to the belief that New Zealanders short-changed themselves if they discounted their colonial and post-colonial past in favour of a narrowly regional sense of national identity.

This perception was comparatively slow to develop. The son of a commercial traveller of Jewish background who died when Neville Phillips was aged seven, in 1938 he achieved a first class MA in history at the then Canterbury College, Christchurch, while working for six years as a reporter and sub-editor on local newspapers. Academic achievement catapulted him on a scholarship to Merton College, Oxford. But his PPE studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Second World War.

He enlisted in the Royal Artillery as a Gunner, rising to the rank of Major and, during service in Tunisia and Italy, was mentioned in despatches. These wartime experiences deepened an already latent interest in Britain and Europe and help to explain, for example, his passion for the paintings of Piero della Francesca and for the European poets, as well as for the writings and speeches of the philosopher and politician Edmund Burke. His enthusiasm for Burke, whom he saw as a beacon of inspiration for all with his own conservative caste of mind, was only slightly dented when the researches of the historian Sir Lewis Namier revealed his intellectual idol to be something of a wheeler-dealer in the politics of Georgian England.

After the war Phillips returned to New Zealand to become Lecturer in History at Canterbury College. Three years later, aged 33, he was appointed Professor of History and Political Science. He held the chair for 17 years.

Former students recall him as a man whose sometimes spiky exterior could swiftly give way to personal warmth and wry humour when he decided that he was in the presence of someone genuinely interested in the past. Those who shared his enthusiasm for 18th-century English history could count on his closest attention. But they would be lucky to escape a scolding if they took the casual route with facts or failed to write with at least a modicum of literary style.

An elegant but, by his own admission, not a habitually fluent writer, Phillips rewrote his lectures on the Italian Renaissance and other themes each year. They were often bravura performances, attracting large audiences. In 1961 he published a book, Yorkshire and English National Politics, 1783-84. He wrote widely for English and New Zealand historical journals, usually on 18th-century politics. His one significant contribution to his own country's history came when he was chosen to write the first part of the official history of the New Zealanders' experience in the Italian campaign. The resulting volume, subtitled "The Sangro to Cassino" (1957), was a meticulously researched analytical narrative, and one of the most impressive contributions to the New Zealand War Histories series.

By the mid-1960s it was evident that more and more New Zealanders were coming to accept that their country was no longer a far-flung outcrop of Britain, but had a Pacific destiny. Perhaps sensing the change of mood, in 1966 Phillips vacated his history chair to become Vice-Chancellor and Rector of the renamed University of Canterbury. He held the post for 11 years before a heart attack forced his retirement.

As head of the university he had a chance fully to indulge a flair for administration that close colleagues knew he had long exercised behind the scenes. He led the removal of Canterbury University from its inner-city site to the outskirts of Christchurch, but ensured that the old mock-Gothic university buildings escaped the developer's bulldozers and housed a now-flourishing centre for the arts.

It was at this point that Phillips's commitment to scholarship and humane values was put to a severe test. Robert Muldoon, Finance Minister and the then government's dominant figure, declared that New Zealand universities were failing to meet the "practical needs" of society and should downplay scholarship in favour of vocational studies geared to the requirements of the national economy. Muldoon coupled his remarks with a personal attack on Phillips, who decided that academic standards were under terminal threat.

In an address later widely distributed as a pamphlet he argued that the Muldoon formula, carried to its logical conclusion, would produce an intellectually illiterate, unenlightened society. In language redolent of his beloved Burke he declared:

The university, beset by the tension between its conditioning and liberating functions, must steer a firm middle

course, not because it is easier to compromise but because it is right.

Phillips's intervention became a rallying point for academics nationwide; Muldoon retreated.

In 1978 Phillips and his wife retired to Canterbury in Kent. From there they undertook ambitious walking trips in France and Italy. Phillips deepened his interest in cricket, often, when the two countries played each other, torn between his admiration of England and his affection for New Zealand. The dilemma tended to be resolved in New Zealand's favour whenever the country to which he had devoted his professional life won the occasional Test match.

Alexander MacLeod