Obituary: Lord Beloff

Nevil Johnson
Friday 26 March 1999 01:02

IT WAS characteristic of Max Beloff that less than six months ago in a debate on reform of the House of Lords he was one of the few speakers who had the courage to enter a vigorous defence of the hereditary principle. He stood up for it partly on pragmatic grounds, pointing out that most societies continue to rely on many applications of the principle, but even more important in his eyes was the argument from history. The House of Lords and the hereditary principle represented, so he affirmed, historical continuities in the evolution of British political institutions. At the very least, therefore, a prudent statesman should not "toss the concept out of the window", and especially when he has no idea what to put in its place.

This was typical of Beloff's style of debate - on the one hand provocative, always ready to press unfashionable arguments, sometimes even a shade quirky in his choice of causes to endorse, but on the other hand always committed to a high level of seriousness, resolute in establishing the facts of the case in hand, and confident that intelligent adults are open to persuasion by reasonable arguments. There can be no doubt that his early work editing that great plea for the American constitution, The Federalist, had a deep and continuing impact on his thinking about constitutional politics and how public life should be conducted.

Max Beloff was the son of Simon Beloff, a Jewish immigrant from Russia who then prospered in England. After attending St Paul's School he had a brilliant career as an undergraduate at Oxford where he took a First in Modern History in 1935. He embarked on research for a BLitt, and the results of this work appeared in 1939 as his first book, Public Order and Popular Disturbances 1660-1714, a scholarly exploration of post-Restoration politics in England.

In 1939 he became an Assistant Lecturer in History at Manchester University, where Lewis Namier was still a dominant figure and the young Alan Taylor a colleague. After a short period of military service (his health was not good at this time) he returned to Manchester for a while, but then came back to Oxford in 1946 to the newly founded Nuffield Readership in the Comparative Study of Institutions.

The first holder of this post had to be a specialist on American institutions. Beloff fulfilled this commitment not only by editing The Federalist, but also by publishing much else on American themes, for example Thomas Jefferson and American Democracy (1948), Foreign Policy and the Democratic Process (1955) and The American Federal Government (1959), an incisive account of American politics which became a standard text of its time. It was in this early stage of his academic career that Chatham House published his massive two-volume work on Soviet foreign policy (1948), and for good measure he also brought out in 1954 a spacious survey of European history in the age of absolutism from 1660 to 1815.

At the same time he was actively engaged in the early stages of the development of Nuffield College, of which he had been made a fellow in 1947, in giving tutorials in PPE for several colleges in Oxford, and in discharging his university lecturing obligations. As an undergraduate I well remember attending some lectures of his on American history since the Civil War which, as he tartly observed at the beginning, represented the first recognition by Oxford University of the existence of American history. Sad to say, though immensely learned and instructive, the lectures found few listeners. When there were only two of us left Beloff asked us to let him know should either of us decide to give up so that he in turn could then stop. However, we stayed with him to the end, perhaps held there by his sheer perseverance in ploughing on.

In 1957 Beloff succeeded K.C. Wheare as Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration and left Nuffield for All Souls. By this time his interests were very much focused on American policy in relation to Europe (The United States and the Unity of Europe came out in 1963), British foreign policy and, above all, the passing of the British Empire. These preoccupations were to be foremost in his scholarly work for the best part of 20 years. In 1969 the first volume of what was originally conceived under the title Imperial Sunset as a trilogy on the passing of the Empire came out. This was Britain's Liberal Empire 1897-1921, a work which provided an authoritative and perceptive account of British Imperial policy at the apogee of Empire.

It is not without significance that this volume closed with one of those intimations of decline, the Washington Conference of 1921 when Britain in the face of American pressure for the first time modified its claim to maintain world naval supremacy. A second volume, Dream of Commonwealth, followed many years later in 1989, taking the story down to 1942. Though Beloff never wrote about the concluding phase when the Empire was actually dismantled, he remained a robust defender of what he saw as a "Liberal Empire" and of its great civilising achievements.

As the holder of a chair dedicated to "government and public administration" Max Beloff was perhaps not entirely comfortable. He was after all primarily an historian with very wide-ranging interests, and the area of government activity which interested him most was foreign policy. But then a change of direction in his career and a shift in his political sympathies steered him steadily towards an ever closer concern with public affairs and the practical work of government departments.

Beloff had since his youth been a Liberal, though probably of a Whiggish kind, and he remained a member of the Liberal Party until 1972. But the drift to the left in the Labour Party, the increasingly obstructive behaviour of trade unions, and the damage which he believed was being done by the then fashionable education policies pushed him, like many other intellectuals at that time, towards the radically reconstructed conservatism envisaged by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph.

This shift in his political views was to prepare the way for the final stage in his career, that of the intellectual deeply involved in politics. But of more direct effect at the time was his decision in 1974 to give up his Oxford chair in favour of the position of Principal at the new University College at Buckingham, with the founding of which he had been closely concerned. He had become a strong protagonist of new private initiatives in higher education as the only sure means of avoiding the stranglehold of state control inherent in dependence on public funds.

As the first Principal of Buckingham he had to face the hostility of the then Labour government as well as the scepticism of those who did not believe that such a venture could ever succeed. But when he left Buckingham in 1979 much of the spadework to establish this new and entirely independent institution had been done and it was a matter of satisfaction to him when it received its charter as a university in 1983.

By 1979 Beloff was already closely involved in much of the thinking, writing, and proselytising that was taking place in the Conservative Party and affiliated bodies like the Centre for Policy Studies and the Institute for Economic Affairs. He received a knighthood in 1980 and in 1981 became a life peer, attaching his title to Wolvercote, the village at the end of the Woodstock Road in Oxford where he and his wife had lived for many years.

He took his duties in the House of Lords very seriously and became one of the outstanding examples in the ranks of life peers of dedicated public service and political commitment. Not that his loyalty to the Conservative Party was blind. He believed firmly that intellectuals in public life (a subject on which he had published a collection of essays in 1970) have a duty to maintain integrity and independence of mind, and should not, therefore, give their support to propositions which are manifestly ill-founded. So from time to time decisions taken by his own party overtaxed his patience and came in for sharp criticism. But I have little doubt that he greatly enjoyed his own "imperial sunset" as a working member of the Lords.

His attendance at debates was assiduous and his contributions frequent, concise and often delivered without notes. He took a close interest in legislation on educational matters, and especially on the universities, and for some years in the early 1980s was an active member of a sub-committee of the Lords Select Committee on the European Communities. His dedication to his work in the Lords continued right to the end, even though in the past few years it must have been a great strain for him to come up to London from Brighton every week, to spend two or three nights at the Reform Club, and then to pass the rest of the time either in the Chamber or in the office in Abbey Gardens which he shared with several other peers. Their diligence must, however, have been less than his, for as he once told me, he generally had the office to himself.

During this last public phase of his career Beloff still continued to write a great deal, much of it directly concerned with issues of public policy, with the functioning of government, and in particular with the constitution. In 1980 The Government of the United Kingdom, written in collaboration with Gillian Peele, came out and rapidly proved to be a highly successful textbook on the subject. There was more work on 20th-century British history and there was a deepening concern with the implications of Britain's membership of the European Community.

This resulted in 1996 in Britain and the European Union: a dialogue of the deaf in which he argued, by no means for the first time, that the past political experience of Britain differed so profoundly from that of its continental neighbours that Britain's membership was bound to remain a mesalliance. This pessimistic assessment found expression too in the last of three lectures which he gave in All Souls in February 1996 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Leo Amery's Thoughts on the Constitution. In this lecture (published as a journal article in 1998) he expressed again his anxieties for the survival of the British tradition of liberal constitutionalism as the country surrendered more and more of its capacity for self-government to a network of unaccountable Brussels institutions.

Max Beloff belonged to a tradition of wide-ranging scholarship which encouraged its practitioners to write for an intelligent and educated public rather than simply for other academic specialists. He had no time for modern social and political science with its passion for models and quantification, nor was he much attracted to abstract moral and philosophical speculation. He remained fundamentally an historian, and of a slightly conventional kind. But his writing made an impact by virtue of its thoroughness, the sheer diversity of subjects that he took up, and his capacity for vigorous argument on practical issues.

As he grew older the controversialist in him became stronger, as was demonstrated by numerous and versatile contributions to journalism. Like many others whose origins were in Eastern Europe he came to love British society and its institutions and felt deeply grateful for the opportunities which a life in England - and much of it spent at its oldest university - had given him. His success as a scholar and academic brought him many tokens of recognition from a Fellowship of the British Academy in 1973 to honorary degrees from universities at home and abroad. Yet Max Beloff remained in many ways a modest and unassuming man, ready to take people on their merits and to treat them as equals in rational discussion.

Max Beloff, historian, political scientist and politician: born London 2 July 1913; Assistant Lecturer in History, Manchester University 1939-46; Nuffield Reader in Comparative Study of Institutions, Oxford University 1946-56; Fellow, Nuffield College, Oxford 1947-57; Gladstone Professor of Government and Public Administration, Oxford University 1957- 74 (Emeritus); Fellow, All Souls College 1957-74 (Emeritus); FBA 1973; Principal, University College at Buckingham 1974-79; Supernumerary Fellow, St Antony's College, Oxford 1975-84; Kt 1980; created 1981 Baron Beloff; married 1938 Helen Dobrin (two sons); died London 22 March 1999.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments