E. H. H. Green

Acute historian of 20th-century Conservatism whose own political sympathies lay elsewhere

Saturday 23 September 2006 00:00 BST

Ewen Henry Harvey Green, historian: born Torbay, Devon 16 October 1958; Junior Research Fellow, Brasenose College, Oxford 1986-90; Lecturer in History, Reading University 1990-95; Fellow and Tutor in Modern History, Magdalen College, Oxford 1995-2006 (Emeritus); Lecturer in Modern History, Oxford University 1995-2004, Reader in Modern British History 2004-06; died Oxford 16 September 2006.

E. H. H. Green was one of Britain's leading historians of 20th-century British Conservatism. Green was convinced from his graduate days under Peter Clarke at St John's College, Cambridge, that Conservatism was an ideology as much as Liberalism and Socialism, one that was founded on a belief in the limitations of the human mind, political scepticism, traditionalism and social mutual dependence.

Starting from this conviction, he devoted his academic career to exploring the different and often bitter policy debates that have divided the Conservative Party since 1900 as it has endeavoured to frame an electorally popular political programme consistent with these fundamental principles. His contribution to our understanding of modern Conservatism is primarily contained in three exceptional books.

The first, The Crisis of Conservatism: the politics, economics and ideology of the Conservative Party, 1880-1914, which appeared in 1995, examined an era in which the Tories were in the political wilderness. Attacking the conventional argument that the party's lacklustre performance in the Edwardian period was to be attributed to the poor quality of its leaders, he effectively demonstrated that the weakness stemmed from deeper causes.

Put simply, the Tories could not agree on how to recast their identity as the party of Conservatism against a backdrop of an expanding electorate, structural change in the economy and Britain's weakening international position. Instead they divided into two embattled groups of free-traders and tariff-reformers, who started from the same point but ended with diametrically opposite positions.

Green's second book, Ideologies of Conservatism: Conservative political ideas in the twentieth century, published in 2002, extended this approach to look at a variety of contentious policy squabbles which have divided the Tories ideologically over the last hundred years. Particularly noteworthy was the chapter on the intellectual genesis of Thatcherism, where he demonstrated that the free-market ideas that dominated government in the Thatcher era were not developed as a response to the dire condition of the British economy in the 1970s but had had a constituency within the party since the Second World War: the much-vaunted post-war Butskellite consensus was really a myth.

This point was hammered home further in Green's third book, Thatcher, which came out in January this year. Not a conventional biography, this was an attempt to analyse further the content and context of Thatcherism and its lasting influence over the New Labour Project. Margaret Thatcher herself, it emphasises, was not a convert to economic liberalism: she had been speaking against the post-war consensus since the early 1950s.

Green's arguments were always supported by formidable archival research. But his books were not weighed down by his learning and his prose was precise and clear. He took the ideas he discussed seriously and had an enviable knack of bringing them to life. This was all the more surprising in that he had no sympathy with 20th-century Conservatism.

On the left of the political spectrum, he had no love for Tory politicians. The day that he delivered the manuscript of his biography of the Iron Lady to the publishers, a friend asked him if there was any question that he would have liked to have asked the former prime minister. His reply was curt: "Yeah! How did she get away with it?"

But he was too serious a historian to allow his political sympathies to influence his published work and was careful to be just. He was quick to point out that the more malign social effects of Thatcherism were the unintended consequences of her policies. She had never wanted to abolish society but had aimed to replace a bloated welfare state with voluntary associations and neighbourly reciprocity.

Green's ability to empathise with his political enemies reflected a generous and open nature. In his politics, he was never doctrinaire, but hated any regime that sought to impose its will by violence and terror. A long-standing supporter of Amnesty International, he was a founding member of the committee which established the annual Oxford Amnesty lectures.

As a teacher, this generosity inevitably extended to his pupils. Both at Reading University, where - after University College London, St John's, Cambridge, and a research fellowship at Brasenose College, Oxford - he lectured from 1990 to 1995, and later at Magdalen College, Oxford, he gained a reputation as an outstanding tutor. Bright students were captivated by the breadth of his knowledge and the acuity of his analysis, while the weak benefited from his care and patience. His influence will long be felt in the corridors of Whitehall and New Labour policy units where a succession of his brightest female pupils went to work; a group of these were later to pay homage to his influence by styling themselves "Ewen's Babes".

A man who could inspire such affection was clearly no dry-as-dust academic. Ewen Green was a film buff; he knew a lot about wine (he was Magdalen's wine-steward); he enjoyed betting on horses; he loved conversation; and he adored dogs: in the preface to his 1995 book he assured the reader that the recently deceased "Cadbury" had been infinitely more helpful to his studies and certainly more useful than any educational minister of the past 15 years (ironically, one of these was the notable Magdalen historian Kenneth Baker). As a young man, he had also been a keen sportsman. He was first-class rugby player and a good cricketer, though, oddly for a Devonian from Torbay, he could not swim.

For such an active and sociable man the onset of multiple sclerosis in his early forties was a particular tragedy. Green bore the disease with amazing fortitude and good-humour for some six years, always hoping that a cure might eventually be found. As long as he could, he continued to teach and write, but, eventually wheelchair-bound and no longer able to read (his forthcoming short study of A.J. Balfour he dictated from memory in the summer of 2005), he took early retirement at Easter 2006.

His death at 47 is a tremendous loss to the British historical profession. His last book ended with the Tory party in disarray as it struggled with the fact that New Labour had successfully hijacked the Thatcher revolution. It would have been interesting to see what Green would have had to say about the Conservatism of the Cameroons.

Despite the Conservative Party's electoral success in the 20th century, he believed that it always had had difficulty reconciling its fundamental principles with the needs of the modern world. Certainly it would behove the present shadow Chancellor, a Magdalen man like many of the Tories whose ideas Green so successfully dissected over the past 20 years, to study the historian's works with care if he wants to reside in No 11.

Laurence Brockliss

Ewen Green's bravery in confronting the hideous disease from which he slowly wasted away was incredible, writes Sir Michael Wheeler-Booth. To visit him was a humbling experience.

Eleven days ago we spent two and a half hours in vigorous conversation. He was by then very ill indeed but was still thinking of projects for further work - a book or article on the Zeppelin, on which he had done research, was one idea. He talked of his medical prognosis and his gratitude to his brother for financial help for medical treatment abroad. He talked of his family and his forebears, both from England and Germany (his mother was German), and their bravery in both world wars - his grandfather won a DSM in the first. He talked of his friends and of their visits, and of Shadow, the last in a series of dogs he had loved.

Ewen was himself a little like a character in a Rudyard Kipling story or poem - stoical, courageous. He was keenly looking forward to the retirement party that was to have been given for him in Magdalen the day before yesterday, and hoped for decent wine. He was also thinking of his own funeral service, but without any mawkishness. He was considering a choice of poets - Christina Rossetti's "Remember" or "Song", Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken" and Louis MacNeice's "Meeting Point".

For readings he was toying with extracts from Alasdair MacIntyre's After Virtue: a study in moral theory, enthusiasm for which had on occasion endeared Magdalen Fellowship candidates during interview. He was considering something too from T.S. Eliot's The Idea of a Christian Society and, with less enthusiasm, John Rawls's A Theory of Justice.

I left him sad but also invigorated.

Join our commenting forum

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


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in