Robert Blake

Robert Blake books include Disraeli and Conservatism in an Age of Revolution. He is Provost of The Queen’s College, Oxford.

Cardinal’s Hat

Robert Blake, 23 January 1986

The history of Cardinal Manning’s biographies is a remarkable one. When he died, on 14 January 1892, ‘no reputation ever appeared more secure,’ as Mr Gray rightly says. His death occurred on the same day as that of the Duke of Clarence, who, had he lived, would have become King of England. Normally the passing of the next heir to the throne would attract much public attention, but it was completely eclipsed by the death of the Cardinal. After the Requiem Mass, despite the poor visibility caused by a London pea-souper, vast crowds lined the streets on the way from Brompton Oratory to the cemetery at Kensal Green. ‘Their reaction,’ writes Mr Gray, ‘constituted perhaps the most striking, certainly the most spontaneous, demonstration of mass emotion that occurred in the capital during the Late Victorian period.’

Weathering the storm

Robert Blake, 18 October 1984

Set in a radio or TV quiz, the following question would flummox most people, even historians: which future prime minister was one-eighth Indian, present at the fall of the Bastille, a colonel in the militia, and had to invoke the King and the current prime minister to overcome his father’s opposition to his marriage? The answer is Robert Jenkinson, second Earl of Liverpool and eighth baronet, whose maternal grandmother, wife of a Nabob, was Eurasian. He is one of the neglected figures of history. Yet he was prime minister for 15 years from 1812 to 1827, till in February at the age of 56 he was incapacitated by a cerebral haemorrhage, called in those days ‘an apoplectic fit’. He resigned a month later, having asked faintly: ‘Who succeeds?’ George IV had many unattractive traits, but harshness was not one of them. He told the second Lady Liverpool that there should be no talk of resignation till absolutely necessary and hoped the Prime Minister would soon be well enough to resume work. ‘No, no, not I – too weak, too weak.’ And he became again unconscious, reviving only to put his hand on a painfully aching head, lamenting loss of memory and saying: ‘I am but a child.’ Late in March he was told that a successor had to be found. He died, a forgotten ghost, nearly two years later in December 1828. By then his successor, Canning, was also dead. Canning’s successor, Lord Goderich, had resigned without even meeting Parliament, and the Duke of Wellington was well into the first year of a premiership which led to the triumph of two causes anathema to Lord Liverpool – Catholic Emancipation and Parliamentary Reform.’

Prime Ministers’ Pets

Robert Blake, 10 January 1983

In reviewing the Gladstone Diaries and the Disraeli Letters I must declare an interest. I am chairman of the committee which superintends the publication of the former and one of the research consultants involved in the latter. But the quality and scholarship of the editors of all these volumes has been so widely acclaimed by others that there is no danger of appearing to give an unwarranted puff to works with which I am connected. Both sets of volumes are admirably edited and if the task is worth doing at all one can safely say that it could hardly have been done better. I have only one criticism of the Disraeli letters. The editors have rightly printed Disraeli’s so-called ‘Mutilated Diary’ in appendices in each volume covering the appropriate years, but whereas his correspondence is very fully annotated, no attempt at all has been made to explain the references in the diary. Yet there is just as much need for explanation here as elsewhere – in fact more, for the diary is particularly allusive and obscure.

Late Deceiver

Robert Blake, 17 September 1981

The state of play over the biographising of Anthony Eden is one of some interest. He offered the task to the late Sir John Wheeler-Bennett, author of many major books including a study of the Munich crisis and the official biography of George VI, who agreed on condition that he would not be expected to publish in Lord Avon’s lifetime. By a tragic irony of events Sir John, who was younger than Eden, predeceased him. Various possibilities have been canvassed since Eden’s death. The choice for the ‘authorised’ biography is said, though I have never seen any public announcement, to have fallen on Robert Rhodes James. If so, it is an excellent decision.

Turning Turk

Robert Blake, 20 August 1981

This is the first of two volumes designed to describe the British press and its connection with politics and politicians from 1850 to 1951. It is a formidable task, and one cannot be surprised that it has never hitherto been successfully achieved, though many attempts have been made. Such success as can be found in press historiography during these years lies more in studies of individual newspapers or particular editors than in any synthesis of the whole story. However, the task is not an impossible one. Professor Aspinall’s notable work Politics and the Press (1949) does it for the period 1780 to 1850, and Stephen Koss pays full tribute to his predecessor. Professor Koss is one of the few American historians of the top rank writing about modern British political history (as opposed to pre-revolution English history). He is producing a work which, to judge from Volume I, is likely to be an essential source of information on the subject for many years to come. It is admirably written, with clarity, incisiveness and wit.


Robert Blake, 18 December 1980

Harold Nicolson was a diarist of genius who would have loved to make a success of public life or literature. He was an able but not outstanding diplomat who retired at 43, a journalist and broadcaster of talent, an MP for ten years and a junior minister in 1940-41. His literary achievements were voluminous, but few of his forty-odd books have lasted, apart from his study of Curzon, his lives of King George V and of Tennyson, and his Byron, The Last Phase. A word, too, should be said for his life of his father, Lord Carnock, which he regarded as his best achievement. He wrote with care and in an elegant, limpid style: but there are times when one is reminded of Balfour’s remark about Asquith, whose clarity of speech, he observed, was a positive disadvantage when he had nothing to say. Nicolson’s diaries and letters make spendid reading, but he was neither a great littérateur nor a man of action. It was a tragi-comic delusion that, converted from National Labour to ‘real’ Labour, he supposed himself to be a possible Ambassador in Paris under Attlee’s government, and even at times dreamed of being Foreign Secretary.

In reviewing one of these books, I must ‘declare an interest’. Paul Johnson’s is a volume in the Mainstream Series of which I am an editor, although I have had no connection with this collection of essays other than strongly approving in principle that he should publish some of his most pungent and vigorous articles, which would otherwise have remained buried in journals and newspapers. Mr Conquest and Mr Johnson belonged in their day to the Left. Mr Johnson edited the New Statesman, and Mr Conquest has not always been a Conservative. Both have swung far away from their earlier beliefs, with something of the enthusiasm, fervour, vigour, conviction and single-mindedness of the convert. The traditional Conservative who never has and never could have voted for any other party must firmly suppress a slightly smug sense of having known the truth all along. Just as Anglican converts can be more Papal than the Pope, so too there is a danger that neo-Conservatives will be more Thatcherite than Thatcher, more Reaganite than Reagan.

Grand Old Man

Robert Blake, 1 May 1980

Biographies of living people seldom come off. There is much to be said for gathering information about a person while he is still alive, as Mr Alastair Horne is now doing in the case of Mr Macmillan. But to publish in the subject’s lifetime is difficult. There are things in some people’s careers which it is impossible even to mention while they are living and many more which it is hard to treat in proper perspective. To steer the course between defamation and flattery, while at the same time avoiding grey caution, is not always easy. In spite of these and other problems Mr George Hutchinson has been remarkably successful in this short and admirably written biography. It is a portrait which is recognisable and vivid, essentially sympathetic but not uncritical. A valuable by-product is the author’s decision to reprint Iain Macleod’s piece from the Spectator about the manoeuvres for the succession in 1963. Since it takes more than one-eighth of his total of 150 pages, this may seem disproportionate, but it ought to be available somewhere in book form. It is one of the most remarkable articles ever written by an ex-minister.

World’s Greatest Statesman

Edward Luttwak, 11 March 1993

The highly practical Hellenistic solution to Britain’s insatiable Churchill/Finest Hour cravings would have been to establish a regular cult, with its own dedicated priests, rituals and...

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Finding a role

Peter Pulzer, 5 September 1985

May 1915 saw the end of the last purely Liberal government in Britain. October 1964 saw the defeat of the last aristocrat to head a Conservative government by a Labour Party dedicated to...

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From Old Adam to New Eve

Peter Pulzer, 6 June 1985

The history of modern Britain is to a considerable degree the history of the Tory Party, Europe’s – and perhaps the world’s – oldest political party. Or at least the equal...

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P.N. Furbank, 18 November 1982

Can it be doubted that to write about ‘the English Spirit’ (or L’Ame Française or ‘the Spanish Soul’) is intellectually disreputable? Plainly, there are no...

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Jew d’Esprit

Dan Jacobson, 6 May 1982

If you want to get ahead in the world, you cannot afford to be contemptuous of or ironic about your own fantasies. It is indeed important to be able, as Wordsworth puts it, ...

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