Obituary: Professor W.J.M. Mackenzie

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The Independent Online
W.J.M. ("Bill") Mackenzie was one of two or three personalities who shaped the social sciences in British universities in the 1950s and 1960s. In these years he was also an adviser on constitutional development in East Africa and on English local and regional government.

Mackenzie came from a reasonably prosperous family in Dundee and he was always something of a canny Scot. His father was a successful lawyer (Writer to the Signet) in Edinburgh. As a student at Edinburgh Academy the young Mackenzie received a strict training in the classics, something that always showed in later life. He was a high flyer, won a scholarship to Balliol at 16, and had to wait a year before going up in 1927. At Oxford he won more prizes and took a Double First in Greats.

Following the family path he returned to Edinburgh to gain an LLB in two years. He was appointed as a Classics don at Magdalen, Oxford in 1933. But he grew bored with teaching grammar and when the College looked to strengthen its PPE teaching, he switched to being a Politics fellow in 1936. He taught himself the subject, reading voraciously and drawing on his knowledge of ancient philosophy and law. To the end one felt that he found the study of politics congenial because it allowed him to indulge in and profit from his interest in so many other fields.

He was part of the dons' invasion of Whitehall in the war. From 1939 to 1944 as a member of the secretariat in the Air Ministry (1939-44), he was a participant observer of the conflict between Tizard and Lindemann and the debate over the bomber offensive. After the war he wrote a secret history of the SOE operations in France, which has not yet been published.

His first contact with industrial England came with his appointment to a Chair of Govermment and Administration at Manchester University in 1948. Few had heard of Mackenzie, who had no publications to his name, but he built up an outstanding Government department which until the early 1960s was the best in Britain and gained an international reputation. He did it by spotting talent: from Aberdeen to Oxford he picked bright young men who were not necessarily political scientists but wished to become so.

At Manchester he created a culture, not of publish or perish, but of intellectual excitement and keeping abreast of developments in the discipline in the United States. In the early 1950s his young colleagues were pioneers in studies of voting behaviour, community power, pressure groups and developing countries. He had a remarkable instinct for where the subject was heading.

Manchester was an exciting place to be in the 1950s. Sir John Barbirolli conducted the Halle, the Guardian was still a Manchester paper and the BBC Brains Trust met regularly there. The University's social science faculty was probably the liveliest in the country. The economists Ely Devons and W. Arthur Lewis, the anthropologist Max Gluckman, the philosopher Dorothy Emmet and Mackenzie argued enthusiastically at weekly interdisciplinary staff seminars. These were exhilarating but also sometimes terrifying occasions for visiting speakers because subject bound-aries did not exist for the Manchester polymaths. Mackenzie's view was that politics was best studied in conjunction with other subjects and that other subjects should always be aware of the political dimension.

As well as building up an institution Mackenzie was also shaping the discipline. Perhaps no other professor of politics exercised more patronage. He made many appointments at Manchester but he also influenced the selections for many Politics chairs in the 1960s. That many of his junior appointments went on to professorships and vice-chancellorships was a tribute to his talent spotting. Sir Charles Wilson, the principal at Glasgow University, in 1965 sought his advice on whom to appoint to the University's James Bryce Chair of Politics. Mackenzie provided some names but in the end offered himself. He had twice built up the Manchester department, in the 1950s, and again in early 1960s, and seen his young lecturers go off to chairs. It was now time to return to Scotland and in 1966 he took the Bryce Chair.

Young lecturers at Manchester regarded Mackenzie with reverence tinged with awe. This was due partly to his erudition in so many disciplines, and partly to the exacting standards which he insisted on. It is difficult to imagine a similar relationship in university departments today. I once overheard an elderly academic refer to some of his former colleagues, now distinguished professors of politics (then in their forties), as still "Bill Mackenzie's little boys".

His management of the department was informal and paternalistic. He made the appointments, held few departmental meetings and governed by conversation and memo. It was a benevolent despotism and, again, is almost unimaginable today: those were days when powerful professors could stand up to Vice-Chancellors and win.

He was never an imperialist about the social sciences. He acknowledged, but was not a casualty of the two cultures war between natural science and the humanities. The study of politics could never be a hard science, although this was a useful aspiration. It was organised knowledge, communicable as a set of propositions. He thought that politics dealt with the awkward bits left by other disciplines.

"The job (of political science) is to talk in an orderly manner, paying regard to consistency and verifiability, about a unique situation which is extremely complex and changes rapidly" he wrote in Politics and Social Science, his best-selling Penguin (1967). He did not believe that lectures or even articles should be too worked out. They should stimulate, suggest and leave students and readers to work things out for themselves. A young colleague commented that a number of students did not fully understand his lectures, but did not doubt that they were listening to a great man.

Mackenzie was also one of the "Good and the Great" who staffed government committees, councils and other public bodies. He knew his way around Whitehall but - from his years in Scotland, Oxford and Manchester - also knew the world outside. He always took the view that his academic studies should inform his role as a man of affairs and vice versa. He was a constitutional advisor to the new states of Tanganyika and Kenya. He was one of the first members of the new Social Science Research Council between 1965 and 1969, served on the Maud Committee on Management and Local Government (1964- 66), the committee on Remuneration of Ministers and MPs (1963-64) and the North-West Regional Economic Planning Council from 1965 until his departure to Glasgow. In Glasgow he was a member of various local and Scottish public bodies.

In 1963 he drew on the austere skills of the classical philological skills and his intimate understanding of the ways of Whitehall to write a brilliant full page translation in the Manchester Guardian of the 1961 Plowden committee's report on public spending. It began "We proceed on two principles: 'No dirty linen in public, and outside critics are bores'." He regarded the report as an example of opaque Whitehall prose employed as a device to allow mandarins to converse in public without being understood.

It is true that he never specialised and so did not produce the great definitive book. But his real qualities were better seen in the acknowledgements and prefaces to articles and books that other political scientists were writing in the 1950s and 1960s. He was a synthesiser, brilliant at making connections across disciplines, ruminating about the state of a field, and suggesting new topics of research. A footnote could move from the classics to a controversy in biology to the mythic aspects of a television soap opera. His qualities were best seen in the scores of essays, talks and seminars which he gave. Some were collected in his Explorations in Government: Collected Papers 1951-1958 (1975). Often he was oblique and allusive, pointing to puzzles and problems, suggesting new ways of looking at the familiar. This was a very different style from his distinguished successor at Manchester, Sammy Finer, who always liked to have the last word.

Yet his publications were distinctive and heterogeneous. His co-authored Central Administration in Great Britain (1957) was an outstanding account of the form and work of British central govemment. From his interest in Africa came Free Elections (1958) and Five Elections in Africa (1960), with Kenneth Robinson. His magisterial Politics and Social Science, an encyclopaedic study of the field, and The Study of Political Science Today (1972) could perhaps only have been written by him. The first explained political science to the social scientist and social science to the student of politics. He wrote about political theory, political resistance in Norway, Africa, regionalism in Italy, among other things. He was a generalist in the best sense.

His appearance changed little from his forties to his seventies. He had a shock of silver wavy hair, friendly blue eyes, a ruddy complexion and a slow Scottish accent. He had a tall shambling gait and there was something of the figure of Father Christmas about him. He was a good mixer, humorous, a marvellous stimulator of staff and students, and always welcoming to those from overseas.

He retired from his Glasgow chair in 1974. There followed more books: Power, Violence and Decision (1975), Political Identity (1977), Biological Ideas and Politics (1978) and a study of health care. If they did not attract the attention they deserv-ed, it was probably because the range was too wide for a more narrowly trained generation of political and social scientists.

He married Pam Malyon in 1943. There were four daughters and one son.

Dennis Kavanagh

William James Millar Mackenzie, political scientist: born 8 April 1909; Fellow of Magdalen College 1933-48; War History SOE (part-time) 1945-48; Professor of Government and Administration, Manchester University 1949- 55, Professor of Government 1955-66; CBE 1963; James Bryce Professor of Government, Glasgow University 1966-70, Edward Caird Professor of Politics 1970-74 (Emeritus); FBA 1968; married 1943 Pamela Malyon (one son, four daughters); died Glasgow 22 August 1996.

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