Loss of an historian

Posted by Helen Friday, September 29, 2006

It is always sad to report the death of a talented historian, especially one as young as Ewen Green, whosed death at the age of 47 of multiple sclerosis has just been reported.

Dr Green has been a remarkable historian of the Conservative Party in the twentieth century, starting with "The Crisis of Conservatism", published in 1995. This was followed by "Idologies of Conservatism" in 2002 and the very recent short biography of Margaret Thatcher.

As the obituary in today's Guardian says:

In a sense, it completes a trilogy. The first book looked at Edwardian politics through Thatcherite spectacles, detecting the emergence of a radical strain of Conservatism. After the variations developed in the second, the final book suggests that, in the perspective of history, Thatcherism itself was not quite as novel as it first seemed.
Some of our readers might feel that another comment made by the author of the obituary is a little too amusing though very apt:
His originality lay in seeing there had been too much concentration on the ideas and politics of the left in 20th-century Britain, probably because many historians were themselves left of centre. He saw that the response of the right was in need of proper investigation, especially by historians who were not of the right themselves.

His whole career revolved around the paradox that he became the most stimulating historian of the 20th-century Conservative party without ever being tempted to vote for it.
We expect numerous comments on whether Dr Green was, indeed, "the most stimulating historian of the 20th-century Conservative party".

3 comments

  1. So, are his books worth reading or not?

     
  2. John Barnes Says:
  3. Certainly one of the best and brightest, but in terms of the way in which we look at political history, principally Conservative history, surely the palm must go to Maurice Cowling. Although perhaps not quite as original as he thought it to be, Philip Williamson's approach to Baldwin's methods deserves a very high ranking also. Alan Beattie wrote little, but that little is very stimulating, and John Charmley might find supporters also. What is clear is that in my scholarly lifetime, there has been a major switch in focus, with a clear realisation that the Conservatives largely dominated British politics from 1918 to 1997, with the occasional irruptions of Labour Government requiring explanation rather than being taken for granted.

    Obviously that is a provocative overstatement, but the assumption when I began work on Baldwin was that Labour's rise was inevitable and the Conservative working class vote was doomed to extinction. Read for example Butler and Stokes. Perhaps the most remarkable challenge to that view came from a political scientist, not a historian, in the British Journal of Sociology 1967 if memory serves me correctly, when Frank Parkin asserted that what required explanation was why the working class voted Labour, given the traditionalist political culture of Britain.

    Baldwin's ability to win working class votes to the Conservative party has never been surpassed (50% in 1924 and 1935, with perhaps 56% voting National in 1931, and at least a third in 1929). Green, for all his ability as a historian and the value of his contribution, never ventured into that debate nor did he shift the whole approach to political history as Cowling did.

    That is not to undermine the fact that we have lost a fine scholar, but to challenge Peter Clarke's view of his centrality to major debates on just why the 20th century was the Conservative century.

     
  4. I had the privilege of being taught by Ewen Green at Oxford. He was a truly inspiring and engaging tutor, combining a brilliant mind with great kindness towards his students.

    His interests lay in a different direction to those discussed in the previous post. He was less concerned by who voted Conservative than the nature of Conservatism itself. Contrary to the common belief that the Conservative party is inherently "pragmatic" or "non-ideological", Ewen Green took Conservatives seriously as men and women of ideas. He brought to the study of Conservatism techniques that were much more commonly applied to the left, and showed how Conservatives used ideas to generate policy and to build a political identity. He also explored the sometimes devastating effect of ideological fissures within the party.

    For a man who died in his forties and had been ill for seven years, his output was remarkable. "The Crisis of Conservatism" is a brilliant account of Edwardian politics, while his essays on Balfour and on "Thatcherism in Historical Perspective" will influence writing on both these figures for decades. Are his books worth reading? - absolutely. He will be greatly missed.

     
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