José Harris

José Harris is an emeritus professor of modern history at Oxford and the author of a biography of William Beveridge. Her most recent book was Civil Society in British History.

Their Way: On the Origin of Altruism

José Harris, 12 March 2009

Possibly no political moralist in modern Western culture has been so widely influential – nor so often overlooked and forgotten – as the 19th-century French mathematician and philosopher Auguste Comte, the inventor of positivism, altruism and the ‘religion of humanity’. In libraries throughout Europe, weighty editions of Comte’s works remain with their pages...

Throughout the history of political thought, attempts to imagine, classify and explain possible modes of political life have been characterised by starkly polarised and stylised antinomies. Among the most familiar are Aristotle’s nature and convention, Sir Henry Maine’s status and contract, Tönnies’s Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, Michael Oakeshott’s ‘Societas’ and ‘Universitas’, Durkheim’s ‘mechanical’ and ‘organic’ solidarity, and Hobbesian vertical ‘command’ models of authority v. Lockean theories of popular ‘consent’. Bertrand Russell described his conception not just of politics and society but of the whole physical universe as poised between a ‘pot of treacle’ and a ‘heap of shot’. In theoretical writings of the last twenty years theorists with often very similar political ends have been deeply polarised between models of ‘liberalism’, and models of ‘community’ that liberalism is widely deemed to exclude.

Last Victorian

José Harris, 10 November 1994

Eminent social scientists are not normally household names, but in the middle decades of the 20th century Barbara Wootton was well-known far outside the dim corridors of universities. Paradoxically for one who lived an intensely private life, she was perhaps best known as the lady professor who had flashed across the tabloid headlines by marrying a taxi-driver. Less sensationally, she sat as a lay magistrate for more than forty years, was a sparkling panelist on popular radio programmes, and contributed to numerous select committees and public enquiries. In her role as director of London University’s adult education services and mentor of mature students she was believed by many to be personally responsible for the marked swing to the left in British public opinion that took place during the early Forties. In 1964 she entered the House of Lords as the first Labour life peeress, and eventually became the first woman to ‘sit on the Woolsack’ as deputy speaker. She was a leading participant in debates that led to relaxation of the laws relating to divorce, homosexuality and the age of majority. She wrote books on social questions in crisp, ironic, jargon-free prose that were printed and reprinted in popular editions. Though she had been rigorously trained in Latin and Greek and had achieved a first with distinction in the Cambridge Economics Tripos, she always insisted that her ideas about society came from practical experience and direct observation and not from abstract reasoning or academic study. Her autobiography, In a World I Never Made (1967), gave a moving account of the intellectual and emotional cross-currents that had fashioned her lifelong beliefs. Loss of a much-loved father, followed by the deaths of her brother and first husband in the First World War (the latter after one night of marriage), nausea at the cultural dominance of ‘dead civilinations’, and gross maltreatment by the Cambridge male economics establishment, left her with a lifelong passion to ‘remake’ the world in a more humane, rational and scientific mould.

Principal Ornament

José Harris, 3 December 1992

Until this week I had read no work written by G.M. Trevelyan since my schooldays. No Cambridge supervisor that I can recall ever recommended any of his books, and I have certainly never prescribed them to my own students. Like most people, I knew – or thought I knew – that he had defined social history as ‘history with the politics left out’, and that he was one of the chief stuffed carcasses in the mausoleum of Whig history. Yet throughout the first half of this century Trevelyan was the most widely-read historian in England and probably in the world. As a child of the Late Victorian ‘intellectual aristocracy’, as a highly prolific private ‘man of letters’, and later as the Cambridge Regius Professor and Master of Trinity College, he defined and dominated popular understanding of the nations’s common past for more than half a century.’

Nobody wants it

José Harris, 5 December 1991

‘A cynic? How can I not be when I have spent my life writing history?’ Alan Taylor’s love letters to his Hungarian third wife created a predictably prurient, though transient, stir when they were published earlier this year. Their more lasting interest may lie in the light that they throw upon Taylor the practising historian, musing to a fellow historian about the mysteries of his craft. Taylor was regarded by many, not excluding himself, as the nation’s greatest living historian; and the personal and domestic details of his letters are intermingled with comment upon his own historical writing, his views of other historians and his interpretation of contemporary events as they unfolded day by day.

Office Parties

José Harris, 10 May 1990

The Victorians, who idealised work, nevertheless reserved the palm of social esteem for persons whose private means enabled them to lead lives of pleasurable idleness. We in the late 20th century make a fetish of leisure and pleasure: yet for most of us status, self-regard, identity and personal relationships are inextricably bound up with access to paid employment. The youthful rentiers of the Drones Club have not died out, but somnolent afternoons in billiard rooms have given way to frenetic action in the City; the Bertie Woosters of yesteryear are now dealers in bonds and traders in futures, clocking in from nine to five. Possession of a private income still carries cachet (it is, after all, money), but much more so if held in tandem with a recognised salaried profession. Work and play, brutally estranged from each other by the early stages of industrialisation, have now reconverged through the medium of rituals such as business lunches, office parties, professional conferences, and all the mundane conviviality of daily working life. Royal princes, married women and the very rich all increasingly reject the once-coveted option of remaining outside the labour market, and honourable idleness is now segregated into that stretch of life known as retirement. Even strenuous pursuit of intellectual truth, at which some at least of the leisured class once excelled, is now no longer trusted and admired unless practised on a salary with a research assistant in a seat of higher learning.

One Nation

José Harris, 23 June 1988

At a time when British national identity appears more fragile than it has been for a very long time, the National Health Service bids fair to become the only major national institution that expresses the unity and commands the undivided loyalty of all but a tiny minority of the people living in this country. Shorn of empire, of economic pre-eminence, of religious certainty and racial separateness, many of them have nevertheless come to see the NHS as something peculiar and intrinsic to the British way of life: a sort of utilitarian church, mediating the beliefs and presiding over the rituals of a society incapable of advancing any more metaphysical conception. For the past thirty years foreign observers cited in Charles Webster’s study have perceived the NHS as an ‘integral part of the total pattern of the British state’, as an ‘altogether natural feature of the British landscape’, and ‘almost a part of the Constitution’. In contemporary British mythology the NHS is perhaps the last institutional survivor of the fabled ‘Dunkirk spirit’. Even in Mrs Thatcher’s Britain most of us take comfort from the thought that, though individually we are required to be competitive and self-regarding, nevertheless somehow and somewhere our collective organic self is being caring and altruistic on our behalf.

Alternative Tories

José Harris, 23 April 1987

No political transformation of the past hundred years has been more profound and far-reaching than the change in the canons by which British statesmen are judged. In the late 19th century it was almost universally regarded as a test of political virtue that a politician did not make promises; he did not have a programme, he did not make deals with foreign powers, he abstained from all but the barest minimum of policy-formation and legislative change. By contrast, the political culture of the late 20th century requires from its leading actors a commitment to incessant momentum: even the most dedicated rollers-back of state power expect to go to the electorate with an elaborate and detailed shopping-list of all the new things they are planning to do. This change of emphasis inevitably distorts and discolours popular judgment of the past. Undergraduates who write essays on ‘Palmerstonian diplomacy’ or ‘Gladstonian radicalism’ or ‘Disraelian social reform’ are continually disappointed to find that these high-sounding soubriquets involved doing virtually nothing: and certainly, if measured against the tireless activity of the governments of Wilson and Thatcher, the titans of British political history emerge as pretty small beer.

Tales of the Unexpected

José Harris, 20 November 1986

For the past thirty years Gertrude Himmelfarb has sounded a discordant and unusual note among writers on Victorian England. She defended a (small c) ‘conservative’ perspective long before conservatism became intellectually fashionable. She was deciphering ‘ideas in context’ more than a decade before such an approach became the new orthodoxy of academic journals: indeed, her stock-in-trade has been to show that the great minds of the past look quite different if viewed from their own setting rather than from the time-capsule of highbrow reputation. Yet, unlike many exponents of this school, she has also clung to the view that some at least of the great themes of history have a meaning and a moral power that transcends the finite boundaries of date and location. In an age in which much academic history has collapsed into monographs and minutiae she has made recurrent forays into grand, ambitious, open-minded subjects: liberty, the ‘idea of poverty’, the genesis, consequences and intellectual limitations of the Darwinian revolution. Most provocatively of all, she has sided with Lord Acton in believing that history ‘resounds eternally to the echoes of original sin’. All this makes her a fascinating example of a threatened species: the Enlightenment ideal of the ‘philosophic’ historian.


José Harris, 24 July 1986

The abdication of Edward VIII belongs to a class of events that can never be adequately treated by historians, since both the act and the actors transcend the conventional boundaries of the historian’s craft. All the evidence suggests that Edward was a mediocre character of limited intelligence and scant scruple, remarkable only for his gigantic powers of self-deception. But no amount of academic documentation is likely to dissuade people a hundred years hence from seeing him as the very mirror of a tragic prince – an ikon of modern royalty as exemplified by Sickert’s dazzling portrait painted, at the time of his accession, for the Welsh Guards. And, after a due lapse of time, nothing will stay historical novelists from elevating Wallis Simpson, née Warfield, to the fictional pantheon of romantic heroines. Like the tale of Tristan and Isolde, the shabby details of the Abdication may one day attract the magical and distilling art of some great maestro of human experience, a Shakespeare or a Wagner as yet unborn. It seems safe to predict that future generations will remember the King’s great matter of the Thirties, long after they have forgotten Appeasement, hunger marches and the unemployed.’

Tethering the broomstick

José Harris, 18 April 1985

‘Who shall paint the chameleon, who can tether a broomstick?’ wrote J.M. Keynes of David Lloyd George in 1919. ‘How can I convey to the reader … any just impression of this extraordinary figure of our time, this syren, this goat-footed bard, this half-human visitor to our age from the hag-ridden magic and enchanted woods of Celtic antiquity?’ This passage was left out of the original text of The Economic Consequences of the Peace, because Keynes felt that he had tried and failed to do justice to the British prime minister’s baffling complexity of character. Lloyd George has continued to dazzle and elude his numerous biographers ever since. Few statesmen have had their public and private lives so frankly exposed and picked over by friend and foe alike: yet few have so tantalisingly evaded the grasp of the historian. Was Lloyd George, as Keynes suggested, a chimera from the Celtic twilight: or was he on the contrary a pioneer of modernity, managerialism and administrative rationalisation? Was he a ruthless practitioner of power politics or a diplomatic femme fatale – endowed with an almost feminine lubricity and guile? Was he an adherent of high principle, or merely a virtuoso of grand rhetoric? Was he a genuine democrat and parliamentarian, or was he mainly concerned with concentrating the power and streamlining the efficiency of the modern centralised state?’

Chamberlain for our Time

José Harris, 20 December 1984

The two things that everyone knows about Neville Chamberlain are that he was the son of Joseph Chamberlain and that he returned from Munich promising peace for our time. Between these two peaks of notoriety his historical reputation stretches dim, grey and obscure. An official biography by Sir Keith Feiling, written during the Second World War when Chamberlain’s reputation was at its lowest ebb, eloquently defended his subject’s personal integrity, but did little to dispel the impression of an essentially private and limited individual who had greatness thrust upon him by the high drama of historical events. Since Feiling wrote, Chamberlain has attracted some interest among historians as a social and administrative reformer; but his image remains that of a man who ‘looked at national politics through the wrong end of a municipal drainpipe’. ‘Neville has a retail mind in a wholesale business,’ observed his diametrical opposite, Lloyd George.

Sour Apple

José Harris, 5 July 1984

One of H.G. Wells’s abiding obsessions was the fear that the ‘woman of the future’ would bring about ‘race suicide’ by refusing to bear children: which may be a reason why he embarked on fatherhood so energetically, with a variety of women in addition to his wife. One of Wells’s most famous liaisons was with Rebecca West, mother of the author of the latest Wells biography. They met in 1912 when she was 19, he 45. He was an established novelist and social critic, she an ambitious young feminist author, who was beginning to make a name for herself by tart and witty book reviews in the Freewoman, Clarion and Daily News. Her articles ranged over numerous feminist topics: the ‘rat poison’ of housework, the futility of the current suffrage Bill, the scarcity of women geniuses, ‘honesty’ in sexual relationships and the moral imperative for a free woman to abandon an exhausted marriage. She constantly berated fellow females for their passivity, sentimental piety, and lack of a sense of adventure and ambition. From the start Rebecca West was obsessed by Wells – that plain and portly ladykiller, whose attractions seemed so mysterious to those who never met him. She pursued him vigorously both at his home (under the complaisant chaperonage of Mrs Wells) and by writing deliberately provoking reviews of his books. ‘He is the old maid among novelists,’ she wrote of his book Marriage. ‘Even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely old maid’s mania, the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids.’ No man of Wells’s temperament could resist such baiting, with the result that he and Rebecca West became lovers. Their son, Anthony West, was born in 1914.–

Politics First

José Harris, 19 April 1984

Chartism has long been, and continues to be, of interest to historians on many different levels. To analysts of institutional change the campaign for the People’s Charter between 1837 and 1848 has been a major, if at the time abortive, episode in the history of parliamentary democracy. To labour historians, Chartism has been mainly significant as the medium of a great upsurge of autonomous working-class consciousness and working-class culture. To the historian of ideas, and to the would-be theorist of industrial change, Chartism was the crucible within which Marx and Engels forged their analysis of class relationships and the role of the bourgeois state. All these perspectives have given the scattered events of Chartism a historical meaning far beyond their immediate importance – which in terms of tangible political triumphs and achievements was remarkably slight. Moreover, as Asa Briggs plausibly argued in Chartist Studies, all these viewpoints tended to endow Chartism with an inner coherence and organisational identity not justified by the historical facts. In Briggs’s view, Chartism was not one but a cluster of movements all sheltering uneasily under the Chartist banner. It drew its support from obsolescent handloom weavers, skilled artisans and factory operatives who had no common economic base to unite them. Its political energies were hopelessly divided between those whose main goal was manhood suffrage and those more interested in factory reforms, Poor Law reform, Stamp Act repeal and a host of other lesser campaigns.–


José Harris, 1 December 1983

John Maynard Keynes, grandson of the minister of the Bunyan chapel at Bedford, was born into a religious tradition that for two hundred years had stopped its ears against the blandishments of Mr Worldly Wiseman and sought only the Celestial City of Eternal Life. The City was to be found, as all readers of Pilgrim’s Progress knew, not by piety or public-spiritedness or good works or moral behaviour, but by that indefinable state of inner consciousness known as Salvation by Faith. By the 1880s, however, the tree of life as revealed to generations of Englishmen by Bunyan’s Pilgrim was dwindling root and branch. At its roots, the Bunyanites and the tradition they represented had been engulfed by a spirit of bustling philanthropy, conventional morality, social ambition and utilitarian calculation. Amid its branches, Faith itself was being continually pared away by the growth of secular knowledge. Among believers and doubters alike, the latter tendency fuelled and reinforced the former: progressive social action provided a pain-killing substitute for the sublime spiritual certainties of a former age.

Nature’s Chastity

José Harris, 15 September 1983

‘Tame’, ‘peaceable’, ‘dogmatic and utterly hopeless’ were the adjectives used by Engels to describe English socialists in his Condition of the Working-Class in England in 1844. By ‘English socialists’ Engels meant, not the wide range of heterogeneous sects whom the term would have embraced at any later period, but one specific group – the followers of Robert Owen. Like Engels himself, Robert Owen was an unusual figure among the founding fathers of socialism in that he was also a successful capitalist entrepreneur. Born in 1771, the son of a humble Welsh saddler, Owen soared to success on the industrial boom of the Napoleonic wars. He became the owner of a highly profitable cotton factory at New Lanark; and it was here that he first became convinced of the need to replace competitive individualism by a communitarian ethic of brotherly love. His vision of socialism combined an exaggerated form of Post-Enlightenment rationalism with a mystic hope of social metamorphosis inherited from William Blake. Over the next fifty years Owen sought to realise his vision in a variety of ways – as a model factory employer, as the founder of socialist communities, as a patron of trade-unionism and workers’ co-operatives, and as the sponsor of a wide range of ‘progressive’ causes from legalisation of divorce to abolition of punishment for crime. His schemes attracted a wide following, particularly among industrial workers and self-taught intellectuals of the lower middle class. The Owenite socialist movement in the 1830s and 1840s constituted what was probably the most extensive radical counter-culture that had existed in England since the time of the Civil War. Yet few historians have seen Owenism as more than a momentary aberration in the march toward industrial capitalism. To historians of collective bargaining the Owenites are mainly significant as early exponents of ‘general’ as opposed to ‘craft’ trade-unionism. By historians of popular religion Owenism has been seen as one among many millenarian sects which sprang up in the 1820s, generated by the trauma of the Industrial Revolution. To Marx and Engels Owenism was merely a moralistic utopian cul-de-sac in the pre-history of scientific socialism. Whigs, Marxists and Fabians have generally concurred in consigning the Owenites to History’s old curiosity shop. Robert Owen, wrote the Webbs, was a political ‘simpleton’ who had ‘inflated’ the working class with a ‘premature conception’ of their revolutionary significance. The verdict of Engels was equally severe: ‘the Owenites were too abstract, too metaphysical and accomplish little.’–

Underneath the Spreading Christmas Tree

Gareth Stedman Jones, 22 December 1994

In high criticism, Victorianism is generally presented as the artless antonym of modernity. It fades away anywhere between 1901, the year of Victoria’s death, and 1910, the year of the...

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