Obituary: Sir Robert Rhodes James

Lord Blake,Tam Dalyell
Monday 24 May 1999 00:02

ROBERT RHODES JAMES, biographer, historian and politician, had an unusual career. Apart from Erskine and Childers he is the only official of the House of Commons to have crossed the divide between administration and politics and be elected as a MP. His position as a clerk in the Commons 1955-64, gave him a worm's eye view of parliament and politicians which was a valuable asset for someone whose chief claim to fame is as a biographer and historian of those subjects. He knew how the system worked and understood its more arcane aspects. There was little he did not know about the parliamentary stage and he regarded its performers with a realistic if somewhat sardonic eye.

He had a family background of public service and scholarship. His father, a regular soldier, gained the MC in Mesopotamia in 1915. His uncle was Montague Rhodes James, Provost of both Eton and King's College, Cambridge, but remembered more for his famous Ghost Stories of an Antiquary.

James was educated at Sedbergh and Worcester College, Oxford, where he read Modern History and whence he won a prize fellowship at All Souls before entering the Clerks' Office in the Commons. His real interest was in writing. In 1959 he produced a one-volume biography of Lord Randolph Churchill. It won high praise at the time though it has been effectively superseded by Roy Foster's book published in 1981.

But his second venture, a life of Lord Rosebery published four years later, has never been replaced. It is a masterly work, perhaps the best of all the 20 or so volumes he wrote. And as far as anyone can explain the springs of action of that enigmatic and not very likeable character, he has done it. He was helped by complete co-operation from the Sixth Earl of Rosebery who gave him a free run of copious family papers at Barnbougle Castle. He deservedly received the Royal Society's Literary Award.

In 1965 he produced the most authoritative history to have appeared so far of the disastrous Dardanelles Campaign of 1915 (Gallipoli). Like his Rosebery it has never been superseded. He was the first historian to use the unpublished papers that formed the background of the Dardanelles Enquiry which brought out Winston Churchill in a far from favourable light.

This may have prompted his next work, Churchill, a Study in Failure 1900- 1939 (1970). Churchill was still an icon and the title, despite the qualification of the dates, produced angry controversy. Arguably Rhodes James did slightly overstate his case, but the fact remains that until he became the Great War Leader, Churchill had a very chequered record even if people did not like being reminded of it.

After resigning his clerkship, Rhodes James was, from 1969 to 1973, Director of the Institute for the Study of International Organisation at Sussex University, and briefly a UN consultant on prevention of discrimination against minorities. He believed in the UN and accepted in 1973 the post of Principal Executive Officer to the Secretary-General, the Austrian Kurt Waldheim, an odious figure whom he came to detest as a liar about his past as a Nazi sympathiser. James sent a major dossier about the fact to Margaret Thatcher when, in the 1980s Waldheim's bone-fide came under serious scrutiny.

As a "One Nation" conservative, disturbed by the chaos in Britain under the regime of Old Labour, Rhodes James resigned from the UN and sought a seat in the Commons. He got in at a by-election for Cambridge in 1976 and represented what was never a safe seat with much success till he bowed out before the 1992 General Elections. He got on well with town and gown despite his Oxford background. He was an excellent constituency MP and took endless trouble with his "surgery".

He was a good speaker whether in open-air electioneering or in the House. His fears about the state of the nation were relieved when Old Labour was ousted in 1979. But it was not a good moment for a left-of- centre Conservative, particularly one who spoke his mind with vigour and acerbity. He became briefly a PPS at the Foreign Office but was swept away with the rest by Lord Carrington's resignation over the Falklands though he had nothing to do with the errors which led to the war.

Whether or not he sought the preferment which a person of his experience and ability deserved, he did not get it. He remained for 16 years the arch-example of a survivor of an almost extinct species which had once populated the House, the independent Tory gentleman back bencher. He belonged to no particular group and was very much his own man, slightly aloof though friendly and courteous.

He was made Conservative Liaison Officer for higher education in the hope that someone of his impeccable academic background could defuse the explosive relations between Margaret Thatcher and both dons and students. Instead he went "native" supporting their grievances and describing the white paper of her guru Sir Keith Joseph as "negative and philistine". He was certainly not "one of us". He eventually resigned on the question of student loans.

Throughout these years and beyond he continued to write copiously and fluently. But quantity led to some diminution of quality in some of his works. "No one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money," Dr Johnson famously observed. And Rhodes James was no blockhead. It may be that he wrote so profusely and on so many subjects for this perfectly reputable reason. For example his life of Victor Cazalet (1976) is no more than a competent work on a minor figure of whom few people have ever heard. His life of Anthony Eden (1986) written at the request of Eden's widow, is over- defensive on Suez.

His biography of George VI (A Sprit Undaunted: the political role of George VI, 1998), his last book, is rather thin though good as far as it goes, and the same could be said of his biography of the Prince Consort (1983). His two-volume political history The British Revolution 1880-1939 (1976-77) does not add much to what is already known. But his editorship of Chips Channon's Diaries (1967) and J.C.C. Davidson's papers (1969) are models of their kind. And his biography of Bob Boothby (1991) for which he received the Angel Literary Award, was a successful study of a somewhat caddish adventurer whose prolonged liaison with Dorothy Macmillan is treated with candour and tact. He was most efficient and able chairman of the History of Parliament Trust (1983-92).

He was disappointed over two projects. He believed that he had the go- ahead for the official biography of the Third Marquis of Salisbury, the Prime Minister, and for the official history of the firm of Rothschild. But neither came to fruition.

Robert Rhodes James was knighted for political services in 1991 when Margaret Thatcher had ceased to be prime minister. He told me after the deposition of Margaret Thatcher that he had kept a detailed diary of the events as known to him. "It is an astonishing story," he said. I asked him when if ever it would be published. "Certainly not in my lifetime," he replied. "Perhaps never." After his retirement from the Commons he set his heart on becoming a life peer but the honour never came his way.

Robert Blake

Whenever Richard Crossman set forth on a party speaking tour, he asked to be rewarded with "one cultural treat", writes Tam Dalyell. In 1964, having read Robert Rhodes James's life of Rosebery, he told me: "I would really like to see Barnbougle, the castle on the Forth so vividly described by this Commons clerk, 600 yards from Dalmeny House, to which Rosebery would slink off when he got bored with his guests. Rhodes James's book is quite simply the most perceptive biography I have read for a long, long time".

It was arranged. Eva, the late and dynamic Countess of Rosebery, took us round surely the best library in private hands in Europe. "At first,", she told us "We were most reluctant to let anyone have total access to the Rosebery papers, but soon we realised that here we had a really serious scholar, so we opened up everything." Lady Rosebery's good taste in writers was to be endorsed over the years by many others, not least by the Queen and the Queen Mother.

Ironically, it was the Rosebery connection which was at least one symptom of Rhodes James's less than relaxed relations with his professional colleagues when he first arrived in the Commons. To regale senior and clever clerks with what had occurred over the weekend at Dalmeny and Mentmore was rather too grand for a young man's own good. He injured his prospects by being thought a terrible name dropper.

And to be candid - as Rhodes James would demand of any obituary - he was thought to put his writing as first priority and his job in mastering the procedure of the House of Commons as a clerk second. To be seen spending so much time pouring over books during working hours would have been perfectly acceptable 50 years earlier but was frowned upon in the 1960s. Yet Sir Clifford Boulton, former Clerk of the House, had no doubt about Rhodes James's facility in writing scholarly select committee reports of the highest quality.

This view was endorsed by Lord Carr of Hadleigh (the former Home Secretary Robert Carr), who told me: "As Chairman of the Estimates Sub-Committee, looking at the AEA, the Air Ministry HQ, and the War Office, I found Rhodes James quite outstanding". So impressed was Carr that years later, when a friend who was Chairman of the Cambridge Conservative Association was looking for a candidate, he said: "I believe you have Rhodes James on your list - you ought at least to look at this outsider and unusual candidate".

As a frequent visitor to Cambridge I was deeply touched by the love in which he and his wife Angela were held not only by academics and students but by people in other walks of life in Cambridge. Even members of Cambridge Labour Party conceded that he was a superb constituency MP who cared about people.

But timing is everything in life. Rhodes James was out of the wrong stable for Mrs Thatcher. Albeit unable to conceal disappointment, he had many real friends in all parts of the House of Commons, and can with justice claim to have influenced the thinking of many colleagues, not all of his own party.

I was one among many Labour MPs who changed attitudes on certain aspects of higher education after talking in the smoking room to the MP for Cambridge. And tellingly, Sir Donald Limon emphasises that on no single occasion did Rhodes James behave other than impeccably to his former colleagues in the Clerks department, not succumbing to the temptation to become a buff on parliamentary procedure. The House of Commons was the poorer when he gave up, voluntarily, his membership in 1992.

Robert Vidal Rhodes James, historian and politician: born 10 April 1933; Assistant Clerk, House of Commons 1955-61, Senior Clerk 1961-64; FRSL 1964; Fellow of All Souls, Oxford 1965-68, 1979-81; Director, Institute for the Study of International Organisation, Sussex University 1969-73; FRHistS 1973; Principal Officer, Executive Office of Secretary- General of UN 1973-76; MP (Conservative) for Cambridge 1976-92; PPS, Foreign and Commonwealth Office 1979-82; Kt 1991; Fellow, Wolfson College, Cambridge 1991-99; married 1956 Angela Robertson (four daughters); died 20 May 1999.

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