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Lord Briggs: Historian and public servant who was an authority on the Victorians and a pioneer of adult education

Asa's output in the written word, and in broadcasts and lectures, was awesome

Tam Dalyell
Wednesday 16 March 2016 22:45 GMT
Briggs: he had the crucial capacity to make transparent decisions and stick to them
Briggs: he had the crucial capacity to make transparent decisions and stick to them (University of Sussex/PA)

When I last talked to Asa Briggs, in August 2006 in the rose garden of his apartment in Tyninghame House, the huge erstwhile pile of the Earl of Haddington in East Lothian where he Susan, and his wife of 51 years, had made their retirement home, he exuded the same demonic questioning and intensely concerned mental energy which I had encountered 40 years previously in the then newly appointed second Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sussex.

Quite simply, Asa – for academia, media and politicians there was only one Asa – was an original phenomenon. Both in quantity and in quality – the two do not always go together! – his output in the written word, and in broadcasts and lectures, was awesome. It is doubtful whether Briggs ever spent a truly idle moment in his life.

He was born in Keighley in 1921, the son of William Walker Briggs, a skilled engineer and a good pianist. His mother, Jane, came from a small-farming Yorkshire family who had been forced to leave the land during the Depression and eke out a living as greengrocers. "We were not straight working class, but very near to it," Briggs told me.

In those days, Keighley Grammar School would send seven or eight boys each year to Oxford or Cambridge. In 1937, at the age of 16, Briggs was accepted as a scholar by Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, with the observation by James Passant, the tutor, "You're only a baby, Briggs – but since we are sure there is going to be a war, we would like you to complete your degree before you are called up for military service."

Briggs thought himself fortunate to be one of the first supervisees of Otto Smail, "who had a magnetic quality as a tutor" (and whose superb lectures on the Crusades I attended 15 years later). Wryly, Briggs recalled that his first essay was on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and that he had deemed it rather a good piece of work. Smail did not concur. "First, it's too long. Secondly, write in short paragraphs. Thirdly, you've got to find the right quotations, not just the ones that interest you!"

Briggs' style in his voluminous writings reflected Smail's injunctions. With another young Sidney Sussex research fellow, David Thomson (later Master of the College), Briggs was to contribute to a much-noticed 1945 volume, Patterns of Peacemaking.

Having achieved first class honours in History Tripos Parts 1 and 2, Briggs was called up into the Army and posted to Bletchley Park as a cryptographer under the direction of FE Adcock (later Sir Frank Adcock, editor of the Cambridge Ancient History and Vice-Provost of King's College), a fluent German speaker and a pre-1914 graduate student of Wilamowitz-Moellendorf, the greatest classical scholar of the age – indeed, any age. "At Bletchley, from Adcock, I came to admire pure scholarship," Briggs recalled. He worked principally on signals traffic from the Mediterranean, using the "Bombes", Alan Turing's proto-computers which allowed them to read enemy signals, and also assisted in the plan to dupe the Germans into thinking D-Day would be carried out somewhere other than Normandy.

In 1944, still at Bletchley, he was offered a position as a Fellow of Worcester College, Oxford. After five years in which he gained his reputation as a superb lecturer and inspiring supervisor, Cambridge attempted to lure Briggs back with the offer of a Readership but Briggs demurred, knowing how riven the Cambridge economists were, and chose an Oxford Readership instead.

Worcester was a college "with a remarkable sense of continuity, and an identity which persists through change," Briggs wrote in 1978, after he had been Provost for two years. Provost Francis Lys, who admitted Briggs as a Fellow in 1944, had been matriculated at the college in 1889. Some Fellows, familiar with the American history, were reminded by Briggs of the soubriquet attaching to Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's doughty rival on the eve of the American Civil War, "the steam engine in breeches".

Amid teaching, university, and college commitments, which would have swamped most dons, Briggs found time, by 1952, to produce his History of Birmingham. Praised to my knowledge by six very different MPs for the city, Lady Doris Fisher, Roy Hattersley, Denis Howell, Roy Jenkins, Jeff Rooker and Brian Walden, it established his reputation. He also assisted Sir Winston Churchill with his magisterial A History of the English Speaking Peoples.

The Worcester College Record for 1992 encapsulates the elusive and rare quality of "getting a move on" which friends like me could only envy, "One always sensed that there were never less than three balls in the air though usually only one of them was visible – the one which concerned the college. But Asa could get it into clear focus in a moment, cope with it with swift dexterity, and send it on its continuing journey before the next ball had landed in his palm."

Never was Briggs' capacity to drive to the heart of issues better demonstrated than during his chairmanship of the Committee on Nursing, set up by the Labour Secretary of State, Richard Crossman. Years later, the then retired Dame Kathleen Raven, Chief Nursing Officer in the Ministry of Health from 1958-1972, came to lunch with me in the House of Commons. "Asa Briggs, in unpropitious circumstances, produced a report commissioned by a Labour government and was promptly accepted in toto by the incoming Conservative government, which changed nurses' pay structure for the better. I doubt if many other chairmen could have got cross-party agreement. Asa grasped what mattered."

Briggs was discerning about the high-profile jobs he was invited to undertake. He had the prescience to decline the invitation of Harold Wilson as Prime Minister in 1967 to chair a Commission on Prices and Incomes. "I sensed that in being asked to please Barbara Castle on the one hand and Frank Cousins on the other, it was mission impossible."

In 1955 he married a talented student (not his pupil, but Jennifer Hart's) from St Anne's College, Susan Banwell, the beginning of an outstandingly happy and mutually supportive marriage. They did a lot of joint editing, particularly later on The Nineteenth Century (1970), which stands alongside what was effectively a Victorian trilogy, the superb Victorian People (1954), Victorian Cities (1963) and Victorian Things (1988)

Together they decided it was time to experience the world outside Oxford and Cambridge and to accept the invitation of Charles Richard Morris, the hugely and nationally influential Vice-Chancellor of Leeds (1948-63), to become Professor of Modern History there. In six years (1955-61), Sir Edward Boyle, Vice-Chancellor, told me, Briggs "galvanised the department". (While at Leeds, the Briggses developed a close relationship with Hugh Gaitskell, MP for Leeds South, and his wife Doris.)

It was Morris (later Lord Morris of Grasmere) and his close friend and collaborator, John Fulton, Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex (1959-67) who cooked up the idea that Briggs should go to Sussex in 1961 to become Professor of History, Dean of Social Studies and Pro Vice-Chancellor, with a view to being Fulton's heir. My first-hand knowledge of Briggs' performance at Sussex derives from three disciplinary different sources – James Cargill-Thompson, Professor of Ecclesiastical History, Chris Freeman, who set up the pioneering Science Policy Unit, and Harry Kroto, Professor of Chemistry, later to win a Nobel Prize.

All homed in on one of Briggs' qualities, perhaps crucial to a successful Vice-Chancellor, the capacity to make transparent decisions and stick to them. Briggs' relations with contumacious late-'60s students were encapsulated in the episode when he was being shouted down during a lecture on the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. "If you continue to interrupt me, I will stop lecturing forthwith. If you desist, I shall take questions at the end of the lecture on France and Prussia, and any other matter, particularly including the running and governance of the University of Sussex."

Briggs coped better with the Daniel Cohn-Bendit Tendency than any other Vice-Chancellors of the day, with the arguable exception of Noel Annan at UCL. He once told me as an aside – he was a master of the illuminating aside – that he owed some of his skill in dealing with militant students to his academic work on the Chartists. It helped also that he had the experience of being Deputy President (1954-58) and President (1958-67) of the Workers' Education Association – no ivory tower for Briggs!

In 1973, Professor SGE Lythe, of the University of Strathclyde, presenting Briggs with an honorary degree, made intention of his work for the WEA, and thanked him for being the teacher of three of the Strathclyde staff. Briggs contended that his best monument was the academic success of his pupils.

But, in my opinion, Briggs' real monument must be his definitive five-volume History of Broadcasting, begun in 1961 with The Birth of Broadcasting and completed in 1995 by Competition (1955–1974). As Walter James put it, recommending him for an honorary degree at the London Guild Hall on 10 May 1979 on the occasion of his becoming the new – and extremely effective – Chancellor of the Open University: "the historian of broadcasting, mining volumes of truth from the labyrinthine ways of public corporations, is well-suited to the choreographer in the two-step we tread with the BBC."

Briggs' output remained undiminished; since his 90th birthday he had completed three books, the last being Loose Ends and Extras in 2014.

Asa Briggs, historian and public servant: born Keighley, West Yorkshire 7 May 1921; cr. 1976 Life Peer, of Lewes, East Sussex; married 1955 Susan Banwell (two daughters, two sons); died Lewes 15 March 2016.

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