Challenger with a history of dissent

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The Independent Online
During the next few days, John Redwood will attempt, for the first time, to map out a clear political agenda to challenge John Major for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Many will see this as a defining moment in the recent history of Conservative political thinking, and, on the face of it, there would seem to be few politicians better equipped to articulate and develop a coherent political philosophy than John Redwood.

Here we have the confrontation between the man who is coy about even releasing his O-level results, the man from Coldharbour Lane who has built a political career on his lack of intellectual attainments, and the dauntingly clever, brilliantly academic fellow of All Souls - or Vulcan to his friends.

The leadership contest will revolve around the all too predictable contemporary political obsessions of Europe, the ERM, law and order and the rest. During his political career, John Redwood has written fluently on all these issues in a series of pamphlets and books, which have even been translated into Portuguese. It's not hard to discover where he stands on the major issues of the day, unlike John Major.

But what about John Redwood the academic? Before his discovery of privatisation, he was immersed in the world of the scholarly monograph, researching some strangely incongruous subjects for a man seeking to lead the Tory Party back to the basics of authority, family values and national identity.

Redwood had an outstandingly successful academic career. He went to Magdalen College, Oxford, spent a year at St Anthony's College and won a highly sought after Fellowship to All Souls College by the age of 21.

In many ways, he trod a similar path to that other cerebral Tory Fellow of All Souls, Sir Keith Joseph. But, unlike that tormented mentor of Mrs Thatcher's generation, Redwood not only published several highly academic articles and monographs, but also managed to combine this output with a job with Flemings in the City. Hence his fearsome reputation as a man who was intellectually accomplished in these two very different worlds.

However, his academic research reveals a taste for some strangely unorthodox historical characters and ideas for a budding Tory leader. His interests lay in the 17th century, and in the heterodox, radical, and anti-establishment dissidents that the English Revolution spawned.

His first publication in the Journal of the History of Ideas explored atheistical ideas of the republican free-thinker Charles Blount, who in ideological defiance of the Church of England committed suicide in 1693. His doctoral thesis was published without revision in 1976 called Reason, Ridicule and Religion - an encyclopaedic celebration of all varieties of intellectual assault on the shibboleths of Church and State.

Describing the deconstruction of clerical authority, of the veracity of the Bible, and the rights of monarchy, Redwood proclaimed the period as one that enshrined the new-found freedom of inquiry and the triumph of the "indomitable human intellect". The challenge of these late 17th- century English radicals, described as an opposition programme, asserted that central institutions whether religious or secular "should be strong".

This emphasis upon the achievements of the cultural and intellectual legacy of the 17th century and the origins of modern rationalism was developed in his second monograph on European science which highlighted the achievements of the men of reason against the traditional teaching of the Church.

The continuing thread in Redwood's historical research laid emphasis upon the discovery of new ways of seeing and understanding the world against the more commonplace arguments found in Conservative thinking of the organic, Burkean tradition that stressed the centrality of continuity, community and institutional stability that has always characterised the Conservative state.

Indeed, it is the Burkean tradition, mediated through the historical teaching of the Cambridge don Maurice Cowling, that informs all of Michael Portillo's speeches - supposedly Redwood's right-wing twin in the Cabinet. Redwood, by contrast, seems to delight in a curious mixture of historical Tory Jacobinism that can be seen as a precursor of radical Thatcherism, but that should send shivers down the spine of any self-respecting Tory Backwoodsman.

Redwood the academic, the man of ideas, has lineages with traditions perhaps more radical than many of his colleagues suspect. The intellectual environment of radical republicanism, within which he spent most of his academic life, which gave inspiration to the men and women of 1789, seems an odd pedigree for an English Conservative. Whatever else happens in the forthcoming debates, if John Redwood gives full expression to the import of the ideas that he wrote about at the beginning of his political career, then the Conservative Party might be in for an even more interesting ride around the ideological circuit than even its most radical members could have expected.

Justin Champion

Richard Cockett

Royal Holloway College, University of London.