BOOK REVIEW / History's iconoclast seen in his anecdotage: A J P Taylor: The Traitor Within the Gates - Robert Cole: Macmillan, pounds 40

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The Independent Online
THIS must be a contender for the silliest title of the year: Alan Taylor in no way deserves to be called a traitor. Professor Cole's book is the first shot in the Taylor biography stakes - there are at least two more volumes in preparation. It is to be hoped that future studies of one of the most outstanding historians of this century will exhibit more understanding of the whole historical scene.

Dr Cole seems to have relied on one of the grouchier days in Taylor's anecdotage. In this mood he was capable of monumental silliness. In my presence on a television programme he remarked that Britain had been involved in two major European wars in his lifetime, and both times it was a mistake. By calling this kind of nonsense 'iconoclastic' he has left a legacy for younger historians to follow, to the detriment of serious history.

In all this, Dr Cole has missed what made Taylor so extraordinary a historian. Every historian who aspires to be more than a mere chronicler tries to recreate a complete vision that will cover all the evidence. Most fail. Taylor did not. His vision was clear, heavily scored in, impressively intricate. He could also be extremely cavalier in his treatment of evidence that did not respond to his martinet-like manner of marshalling it.

Like most of those who achieve his kind of mastery of historical phenomena, he had almost total recall of everything he had read. This made him a critic and a controversialist to be challenged only at the peril of the challenger. If he recognised the justice of the challenge, he accepted it (and here I speak again from personal experience), and befriended the challenger. His iconoclasm, as, for example, with his Origins of the Second World War, cleared the way for a whole new generation of historians to re-evaluate what had passed from being a historical view into dogma.

There is a need for the kind of work Dr Cole has attempted. One has to recognise how, in his views of Germany, Taylor relied heavily on a generation of German radical and socialist emigre historians. Much of his writing on Germany was of this borrowed nature, unlike his work on Austro-Hungary or his diplomatic history. Here he was an admirer of the limited, gentlemanly diplomacy of the aristocratic diplomatic services his normally populist views might have been expected to reject. But he was essentially a defender of status quo diplomacy, and an enemy of those who irresponsibly sought to remodel the systems and practices of international relations for ideological reasons. In this he was less than totally consistent: he detested President Wilson, but was a rabid defender of Czechs and Yugoslavs (he did not distinguish between Serbs, Croats and Slovenes).

Dr Cole is most drawn by Taylor's admiration for the radical tradition in British politics. It is very easy to dismiss this as inherited humbug, and in a more rational man than Taylor, this would be fair. But Taylor's approach to history was visceral rather than intellectual. He wrote of what he loved and admired, as well as of what he detested. His enormous public appeal, to television audiences as to readers of the Beaverbrook press, came from the reactions of the ordinary Anglo-Saxon public to this echo. It is ironical to reflect that Lady Thatcher derived her strength from a similar empathy, and that those whom Alan Taylor most admired among 19th-century radicals should have been claimed by her and her intellectual advisers as their spiritual predecessors.

But they, too, like Taylor himself, were products of northern non-conformism. Yet the title Cole has chosen - 'traitor within the gates' - to describe this most English of academics is a deep, if unintended, insult to Alan Taylor's memory.