Obituary: Professor Samuel Finer
Friday 11 June 1993
SAMUEL FINER was one of the giants of post-war British political science. His university career started in 1946 as a lecturer and then junior research fellow in politics at Balliol College, Oxford, and ended with his retirement as Gladstone Professor at Oxford in 1982. These years saw a significant expansion of political science in universities. Sammy Finer was a key figure in developing new fields of research and in influencing appointments to university chairs of politics in the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1950 Finer was appointed founding Professor of Politics at the new Keele University and was later Deputy Vice-Chancellor. In 1966 he moved to a large but then depleted Department of Government at Manchester University. Under WJM Mackenzie this had been an outstanding department but was badly hit by the promotion of many of its lecturers to chairs in the new universities. Finer succeeded in rebuilding it. In 1974, aged 59, he moved to All Souls College, Oxford, to become the Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration.
Finer will long be remembered for his many fine books and articles. His books on comparative government and on British politics were a staple diet for thousands of British and American undergraduates in the 1960s and 1970s. For sheer readability and learning they put most other texts in the shade. But he was first and foremost a teacher. He had remarkable gifts for exposition, for organising material, putting the familiar in an original light, and speaking in vivid language. He would mix contemporary slang with classical allusions and references to foreign authors. It is a high compliment to say that he wrote as well as he spoke.
His parents, Max and Fanny, came to England from Romania in 1900 and ran a market stall in Islington. Sammy was the last born, in 1915, and was a late addition to two brothers and three sisters. The main influence in his childhood was his brother Herman, 18 years his senior. Herman was a brilliant lecturer at the London School of Economics and eventually moved to the University of Chicago. His book Theory and Practice of Modern Government (1932) was a landmark text. At the age of seven Sammy replied to a question about his future: 'I want to be like my brother.' As a child Sammy never forgot his mother's warning: 'You are poor and Jewish and you will always have to work hard.'
Sammy attended Holloway Grammar School. He looked back on his education with great fondness and made sure that his children later attended state schools. He gained a scholarship to Trinity College, Oxford, took a First in PPE in 1937, and then repeated the triumph in Modern History the following year.
After six years' war service his academic career began at Balliol - 'I was a brilliant young man.' He built up the politics departments at Keele and then at Manchester into excellent centres of research. Primarily he did this not by setting up team projects or getting large grants, as an American professor would have done, but by appointing bright people and encouraging them to get on with their work.
Finer's work was strengthened by his background in history. He was dismissive of the idea that there could be a pure science of politics; so often, it achieved only 'an empty set of mechanical calculations'. History was important for perspective, for judgement, for context and simply for knowledge. A discussion with him could be like arguing with a data bank - he had so much knowledge from his wide reading and his remarkable memory.
His early works covered public administration, local government and a magisterial Life and Times of Sir Edwin Chadwick (1952). At Keele he did pioneering work (with his colleagues David Bartholomew and Hugh Berrington) on the behaviour of parliamentary backbenchers; provided the first complete study of British pressure groups, Anonymous Empire (1958); and edited the writings of the political theorist Abbe Sieyes and the sociologist Vilfredo Pareto. He was one of the first to see the significance of the phenomena of military intervention in newly independent states. His Man on Horseback (1962) has recently been reissued. In 1970 he published his classic 600-page text, Comparative Government, based on his lecture course at Keele and at Manchester. It has gone through several reprints. At Oxford he completed important studies of the British party system and the electoral system. All the time he was turning out scholarly articles, contributions to books, talks and opinion pieces, as well as holding numerous visiting professorships overseas.
His later works were largely comparative. He was quick to spot the connections in data and was fertile in producing models and typologies. His method was to get on top of a subject, come to a conclusion and then write it up as authoritatively as he could. In many ways the breadth of his interests reminded one of the great Continental sociologists like Raymond Aron or Max Weber. He joined the study of politics and government to broader social, economic and cultural factors. He was never a reductionist. He deplored the fashion for assuming that politics was a variable, dependent on economic, sociological or psychological factors. This was at the root of his suspicion of Marxism and much mainstream American political science and behaviourism in the 1960s and 1970s.
What gave his lectures their impact was that they were so clearly the work of somebody who had thought deeply and cared about the subject. During his eight-year stint at Manchester he gave the first-year lectures in government each Tuesday and Thursday to more than 400 students, drawn from different specialisms. Many of them came to regard the lectures as one of the great experiences of their university life. In late 1973 lectures were frequently cancelled because of the power cuts, a consequence of the coal miners' work to rule. Finer had wound himself up for the lecture and would not hear of a cancellation. He invited several hundred students to sit down in a large open space and lectured to them in semi-darkness. They would be treated to famous Finerisms. 'Politicians are not as clever or as charismatic as you or me,' pause, 'particularly me.'
His preferred style of management at Keele and at Manchester was not to involve himself too much in administrative detail but to delegate and to concentrate on larger matters. This was a sensible use of his own skills but he was lucky to have co-operative colleagues in both institutions.
At Oxford the lack of a department, or the command of resources, combined with the strong college system, made him chafe at the bit. His attempts to reform the politics syllabus were rebuffed. He retired from the fray and enjoyed his fellowship of All Souls. In these years he became something of a public figure with his critique of adversary politics - a term which he coined - and his advocacy of proportional representation. But he was not a liberal in politics; he wanted electoral reform largely in the interests of promoting the continuity of policy and because he thought it would be conducive to good government. Indeed, he had been a Labour supporter until Suez in 1956. Thereafter he was detached from party.
As a strong personality he was not to everyone's taste. He could be an attention-seeker - compounded by his high-pitched voice and striking personality; insisted on having a decisive say; was certain of his opinions, and could be impatient at slow wittedness or wrong-headedness. At seminars, his visible irritation with a speaker could be entertaining, as long as one was not the speaker. He was impatient of jargon, mumbling and the elaborate statement of the obvious. He could captivate the seminar audience by doodling energetically, ostentatiously blowing rings of cigarette smoke, shuffling his chair or sometimes stalking over to a wastepaper-basket. In truth, he could be intolerant of the pedestrian and in his book to be worthy was often to be dull.
That was one side. He could also be charming, witty, attentive, a marvellous host and fiercely loyal to friends. He was a meritocrat who worked hard and expected others to. The vigour and clarity with which he expressed his views, however unpopular, could crush more sensitive souls. But if he cared about something and had thought it through he wanted you to know. He did not find it easy to relax. Some (particularly Americans, mystified by English 'characters') wondered if his drive was due to his size (he was 5ft 6in), race, or sibling rivalry, living in the formidable shadow of his brother Herman, himself a giant in political science.
He was a great teacher on the platform and in print. His capacity for work, speed of mind and powers of concentration would have taken him to the top in any career. But he never regretted choosing the academic life. He could be a sucker for things bright and beautiful: colourful clothes, a pretty girl, a striking phrase or word, a compelling argument. Despite the voice and manner of a patrician, Finer would wear a brightly coloured shirt with an orange cravat (plus a gold-ring woggle) as a signal to the Establishment that he was not to be taken entirely for a certain kind of Englishman.
In retirement he devoted himself to the most ambitious project of his career, the general history of government through the ages. Given his troublesome heart condition, friends doubted whether he would ever finish it. He made an amazing recovery from a serious heart operation in 1988 and was sustained in his work by his cigarettes and whisky. There was no slowing down. To the end he conveyed a sense of tremendous energy, physical, mental and nervous. The book was near completion and is due to be published by Oxford University Press.
He married Ann McFadyean in 1949 and had three children. The oldest, Jeremy, is a member of the pop group the Pogues. In the late 1960s in Manchester he fell in love with Catherine Jones, a young lecturer in social administration. His marriage to Ann was dissolved in 1975 and he married Catherine in 1977.
The encyclopaedic range of his work, his familiarity with other disciplines and his mastery of so many diverse methodologies of political science stamped him as a figure from a richer age of scholarship.
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