Paul Smith

Paul Smith’s edition of Bagehot’s English Constitution came out this year.

The British Empire attained its maximum extent just after the First World War, but the peak of imperial visibility and imperialist sentiment at home was arguably reached two or three decades earlier, most colourfully in the great imperial pageant that marked the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The thumping Unionist electoral triumph of 1895 was confidently ascribed by Sir Robert...

One’s Rather Obvious Duty

Paul Smith, 1 June 2000

How bogus was Baldwin? When he said in 1925, ‘I give expression, in some unaccountable way, to what the English people think’, the statement was, as Philip Williamson notes in this ambitious new assessment, ‘in any literal sense … untrue’. Similarly with his claim to be ‘voicing what is in the minds of the dumb millions of this country’, though there...

To be the author of the best-known work of history never written is a guarantee of enduring celebrity, but also of lasting ridicule. On the marble bench in Venice where, by moonlight, in 1879, he expounded to an enthralled Herbert and Mary Gladstone the project of his great history of liberty, his ‘Madonna of the Future’, as he called it, Lord Acton was courting nemesis. For ‘moonlight’ his detractors have tended to read ‘moonshine’. His defenders have countered the impression that he wrote no history by representing that in fact he wrote a good deal; but they are heavily dependent on his early journalism and on the lectures published after his death by J.N. Figgis and R.V. Laurence. There is no great work to count in the research assessment exercise of the ages, only a vast assembly of materials, to some grand in the nobility of conception and thrilling in the promise of transcendental wisdom which they convey, to others a profoundly depressing monument to the union of pedantic burrowing with lack of will and courage for composition. Even Acton’s best friends sometimes despaired. Asked maliciously by Eddie Hamilton ‘whether there was to be any result from such wondrous accumulations of knowledge’, W.E. Gladstone thought that Acton would have difficulty in finding a publisher for a dozen volumes on liberty, ‘but being so well versed in history, especially that of last century, why should he not write a memoir of Madam Dubarry?’‘

The war that broke out in 1914 was the first in which highly industrialised and urbanised states were to be found on both sides, and industrial muscle and urban stamina counted for as much as military professionalism, conscript grit and peasant stoicism. How far urban stamina could be relied on was not the least of the questions troubling nationalists in the years before the war. Big cities readily produced outbursts of jingoism in national emergency, or of intolerance when supposedly national values were challenged. But, alongside the clerks who ‘mafficked’ in London and the students of the Action Française who disrupted the Sorbonne lectures of Professor Thalamas (regarded as a traducer of Joan of Arc) stood groups less obviously inclined or adapted to answer the nation’s call. Nationalists feared the great towns as the seats at once of lust for gain and taste for luxurious ease which sapped the will to sacrifice self for state, and of the proletarian alienation and socialist militancy that placed the class before the national struggle. They need not have worried. The ability of each of the states concerned to represent its war as one of defence turned the flank of a socialist movement which was far from having eradicated in its adherents instincts of patriotism and habits of obedience.‘

Scrum down

Paul Smith, 14 November 1996

Though citing the suggestion that for South Africans ‘the rugby scrum was symbolic of the laager,’ John Nauright and Timothy Chandler enter the reservation that ‘such notions can be taken too far.’ Indeed they can. An inward-facing huddle of wagons, their occupants locked in some obscure struggle of their own, would have presented little problem to a marauding Zulu impi, unless that of throwing its assegais straight while doubled up with laughter. It is more plausible to take the scrum as the most explicit physical expression of the male bonding which Making Men sees at the heart of its subject. The opportunities which it gave for respectable touching (amplified by much mutual rubbing in of embrocation afterwards) may well have been – as Jock Phillips suggests writing of 19th-century New Zealand, but with a sidelong glance at the English public schools – a source of comforting closeness in a society where women were scarce or marginalised and the taboo against homosexuality was strong.’

Hoping to Hurt

Paul Smith, 9 February 1995

Peter Gay’s The Cultivation of Hatred completes his Freudian psychoanalysis of the bourgeois 19th century by bringing aggression to bear alongside the forces of sexuality which form the subject of the preceding volumes, Education of the Senses and The Tender Passion. That aggression and sexuality are intimately associated, at once intermingled and opposed, Gay has no doubt, pointing to the ‘provocative oxymorons like “sweet cruelty”, the “voluptuousness of revenge” and “cruel tenderness” ’, in which Heine and others registered their sense of the ambiguity of the relationship. For analytical purposes, he has had to separate them in this vast undertaking. The hurt of historians is that they know that everything works together but they cannot conceive and describe everything working together: analysis wrecks the Bergsonian continuum which inspires it. Aggression and sexuality fuse here only at moments, less in the context of the treatment of gender relations than in the pages on sadism and masochism, at which Gay arrives with dreadful inevitability by way of the English public and preparatory school, or in what he calls the ‘erotic democracy’ of Second Empire caesarism. But libido must always be understood to be lurking, in the German cartoonist Wilhelm Busch’s observation of children watching a pig being slaughtered (‘Death, cruelty, voluptuousness: here they are united’) or in sports and competitions, which, Gay tells us in The Tender Passion, he might have treated there as examples of the displacement of erotic feeling, but decided to save for the next volume because in them aggression had the upper hand.

Westminster’s Irishman

Paul Smith, 7 April 1994

Sometimes he was Smith, sometimes he was Stewart, and sometimes he was Preston, but the most telling of the aliases Charles Stewart Parnell used to conduct the liaison with Mrs O’shea that eventually destroyed him was undoubtedly ‘Mr Fox’. Revealed by the divorce proceedings of November 1890, which, in wrecking his alliance with Gladstonian Liberalism, cost him his leadership of the Irish Parliamentary party, it rebounded savagely on him in the last, desperate convulsions of his career, as he struggled in a punishing series of by-elections to recover the dominance of the Irish national cause which had been his unchallenged possession for over a decade. Harried around North Kilkenny to the cry of ‘Tally-ho’ by ‘hounds like Davitt’ (his own phrase) who had been his colleagues a few weeks earlier, Parnell was stripped of the aloofness that had been his trademark and forced into the mud of a contest that deprived not only him but the Home Rule cause of the moral dignity he had battled to assert, and, as Frank Callanan notes, delivered to Unionist enemies the propaganda gift of an apparent reversion to the old, burlesque Ireland, the pantomimic Paddyism, of their most cherished prejudices, an image only intensified by Davitt’s snivelling exculpation of the vicious Kilkenny fight as ‘full of fun and Irish good humour throughout’. It was no better in Sligo, or in Carlow, where the unhappy choice of Andrew J. Kettle as the Parnellite candidate provoked so vigorous a tattoo on the appropriate utensil at Parnell’s meetings as to turn his last campaign into a hideous skimmington.

A Win for the Gentlemen

Paul Smith, 9 September 1993

Negotiating the commercial treaty of 1860 with France, Richard Cobden, he later revealed, felt ‘humiliated’ by the contrast between the rational system of measurement in force across the Channel and the weird complication of its British counterpart. Metrication and decimalisation would not only smooth the conquering path of British commerce but contribute to the harmony of nations. Lord Palmerston, however, had less inclination to admire foreign models and none at all to adopt them. ‘Can you expect that the people of the United Kingdom will cast aside all the names of Space and weight and capacity which they learnt from their infancy and all of a sudden adopt an unmeaning jargon of barbarous words representing Ideas and Things new to their minds. It seems to me to be a Dream of pedantic Theorists … I see no use however in attempting to Frenchify the English nation, and you may be quite sure that the English Nation will not consent to be Frenchified.’

The Whole Orang

Paul Smith, 12 March 1992

How pleasant to be Mr Darwin, who wrote such volumes of stuff without the necessity of gainful employment or institutional backing, or the need to budge very often from the old parsonage at Downe to which he withdrew at the age of 33, confidently telling an old servant as he sent the address: ‘this will be my direction for the rest of my life.’ Not the least valuable part of this massive but racy biography (at eight hundred pages a bargain for the price) is its detailed portrait of the independent gentleman scientist in almost the last epoch in which any individual could singlehandedly precipitate a major shift in human thought. Adrian Desmond and James Moore place Darwin above Marx and Freud. It is hard to think of successors to that trinity of lone rangers in an age when research is financed by foundations and carried on by teams and generally mounted on the kind of scale where the capacity of execution seems in danger of outrunning the fertility of conception.

Holborn at Heart

Jonathan Parry, 23 January 1997

Fifty or sixty years ago, there were many people for whom Gladstone still mattered. This can hardly be said today. He has become more and more marginal to our preoccupations, partly because those...

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