An interview with Professor John Ramsden

Posted by Helen Friday, November 20, 2009 ,

Professor John Ramsden, who died earlier this year, was as the Daily Telegraph obituary put it, "one of the key historians of the Conservative Party". An achievement in itself, he also displayed considerably wider interests, for example, in his history of modern Anglo-German relations. In the summer of 2007, Mark Coalter, himself a conservative historian and frequent contributor to the Conservative History Journal, interviewed Professor Ramsden for the Journal. As is so often the case with historians, the interview turned into something that was far too long to publish in the Journal but far too fascinating to cut down. So we have decided to compromise. Both the Journal and the main blog will have excerpts from the interview; the full text is being published here.

Mark Coalter has asked me to extend thanks and appreciation to Lynn Austin for preparing the original transcript of this interview.


MC: What drew you to political history and in particular that of the Conservative Party?

JR: As an undergraduate I was an early modernist. Political history interested me and I planned to do a thesis on a Nuffield-style study of Richard Cromwell’s parliament of 1658. I was then taught by Brian Harrison for a term just before I took my finals and realised with total clarity that I wanted to be a modern and contemporary historian. And so I decided that what I wanted to do was something on the transformation of the Conservative Party at the beginning of the 20th Century, the way businessmen moved into what had previously been a landed party. The move from the generations of Stanleys and Cecils to Bonar Law and Baldwin; what AP Thornton called ‘Bonar Law’s Dynasty’. I thought what would be really interesting was to look at the dynamics of the Party, however, I realised very quickly that it was absolutely impossible as nobody had done the really basic and probably quite boring legwork on how the Party functioned and its structure. Conservative Party history was just so deeply unfashionable that nobody did it apart from Norman Gash at St Andrews and Robert Blake in Oxford. Blake’s Ford Lectures, an absolutely key moment in the Conservative Party’s historiography, were delivered while I was an undergraduate. This was the first serious attempt by a real historian to write the history of the British Conservative Party. As a series of lectures it was fairly lightweight but it was intended to be lightweight. Robert was fundamentally a biographer - brilliant studies of Disraeli and Bonar Law - but he wasn't much into institutional history and the work of the constituencies and that sort of thing.

MC: So why did we have to wait until 1969 for Blake to plug this gap with his seminal work, The Conservative Party From Peel to Churchill?

JR: I think it goes back to the general philosophy of most historians at that time. Academics, who were overwhelmingly on the centre-left, were fundamentally trying to explain how Britain in the mid-20th Century became a social democratic country. Henry Pelling produced a rather grinding history of the Labour Party from the perspective of the inevitability of gradualness and how Britain was going to become a Labour country in due course. The Attlee consensus that Paul Addison wrote about in The Road to 1945 assumes an irreversible revolution and that even the Conservatives had to occupy social democratic territory. Of course, from the perspective of thirty to forty years later it all appears to be rather silly because we look back on the 20th Century now as a Conservative century. This is something that Tony Blair famously said while Roy Jenkins often remarked that it was a century dominated by the Conservative Party in British politics. I myself have often said in lectures that the Conservatives are the most successful political party in the world in terms of their adaptability over two centuries and their hold on office during that length of time. But it didn't actually look that obvious in the 1960s with the Macmillan government falling into disarray. Heath seemed unelectable and where was the Conservative Party going? Well, if it was going anywhere it was only by imitating its opponents.

MC: Of course, there were a number of biographies of Conservative figures already in existence, including Blake’s Disraeli published in 1966. Might this have pointed towards a change in direction?

JR: There were lots of biographers working on Conservatives and that was quite a rich field. There had been the Petrie biographies of Austen Chamberlain and Walter Long, Blake's own study of Bonar Law, and Beaverbrook’s books on high politics in the First World War. Suddenly at the end of the 1960s we got some serious documentary-based publications. Barnes & Middlemas on Baldwin came out in 1969. Robert Rhodes James’ book on Churchill, A Study in Failure 1900-39, appeared pretty soon after along with the Davidson papers and the three volumes of Tom Jones’ Whitehall Diary. The whole period of the Bonar Law, Baldwin and, indeed, Chamberlain domination of the Conservatives becomes a rather active field biographically in addition to the earlier works. Blake pulls that all together very well, although his interest is really in high politics. Maurice Cowling is beginning to work in exactly the same field from the perspective of high politics - The Impact of Labour comes out in 1971. And so those of us who were actually trying to look at the Conservative Party somewhere outside the Westminster Village were few and far between.

MC: Conservative historiography has really developed over the past few decades and has become quite sophisticated and specialised. Do you think there are any obvious gaps that have yet to be plugged?

JR: There is a whole area that has only begun to be exploited, which is the way the Conservative Party, as an organisation, functions. And I don't just mean the really boring local level of how constituencies make their tea and run their cheese and wine parties. Although without those things, of course, the rest of it would never have functioned. This was one of the things I tried to do when I started my PhD thesis, which became The Age of Balfour and Baldwin. Robert Blake wasn't interested in writing that sort of history himself, but he was very much the moving spirit that got the Longman History of the Conservative Party off the ground. When somebody else, whom I had better not name, never actually wrote the post-war volumes, I got drawn into preparing those as well, so I ended up writing the whole 20th Century section of that series. The six volumes contain a framework, but enormous holes were left, including discussions on how the Party functions. The first person to do that was Stuart Ball - I examined his PhD thesis, which developed into the book Baldwin and the Conservative Party. What Stuart demonstrated was that there was a way of bridging the institutional history of the Party as an organisation, which is what I'd been doing, and the high politics that Robert Blake and the biographers concentrated on. Stuart broke completely new ground with this book. He showed that it was possible to write the history of policy from the viewpoint of the Party as an organism and illustrated just how far Baldwin responded to a multiplicity of stimuli from all sorts of directions. Now, in a sense we sort of thought that might be a rather special case because the leader was very weak and beleaguered in 1929/30/31. However, following on from that, Nick Crowson wrote about the Conservative Party and Appeasement. At the end of the 1930s Chamberlain was about as beleaguered as Baldwin was in 1931. But in 1935/36/37 the leadership was strongly entrenched and Crowson showed that the Party was still responding in a similar sort of way. He has just published a book on the Conservative Party and the idea of Europe in the post-war period, which further examines the relationship.

On the subject of leadership, the Conservative Party has been an autocracy tempered by assassination. To paraphrase Churchill’s famous phrase, the leader must be sustained, he must be supported when he stumbles, he must not be awoken if he sleeps, but if he is no good he must be ‘poleaxed’. That is a very shrewd comment, as hardly any Conservative leaders died in their beds in the 20th Century. Those who retired at a time and place of their own choosing were a very small number. Baldwin, in 1937, is probably the only man in that category. Ill health does for Bonar Law and for Macmillan, but the others were effectively overthrown by their followers. It does not mean, at the same time, that the others were weak leaders in between being elected and being assassinated, but it is a much more complex relationship than Blake had been able to show.

I started looking at the organisational aspects by giving the constituencies their minute in the sun. Philip Murphy has now done the same thing on colonial policy, and Sandra Onslow has looked at backbench groups in the 1950s. The way in which policy evolved is now seen as much more complicated than either the political scientist model or the historian's biographical approach of a couple of generations ago. What that actually means, of course, is that all policy areas that have not yet been covered are open for a similar study. From the 1950s onwards there is a mass of political papers that are available to study on the Conservative Party at the Bodleian Library. This is also all down to Robert Blake. I was asked by Central Office to do a survey of their papers. When I saw just how much was there, I mentioned to Robert that something had to be done. He persuaded them to take it to the Bodleian and set up a system that countless scholars, including myself, have used since. All the central archive is now there, pretty much everything bar the first part of the Century, which was pulped in 1940 for the War effort, and the early post-war years, which have either not survived or not survived very well. However, from the 1950s onwards, there is a half-century that is extraordinarily well documented in the Bodleian. Constituency records are also pretty good in some areas from early in the 20th Century to the present. It is possible to do a sample of constituencies and one can get a sense of what was happening at least in Scotland, Wales, urban England and the Cathedral cities. If you want to look at what they thought about British policy on the Middle East then there is a book there because of the richness of the material. Once you get into the period when the Research Department files are also available, then one finds these to be a very rich resource, particularly as it is all about the development of policy. It is probably going to be less good for that period after 1979 when the Research Department ceased to exist as a separate body and was integrated back into Central Office, but at least for a good part of the post-war years there is a rich archive there for nearly any area of policy on which a book has not yet been written.

A really good gap for somebody to move into is the Conservative Party and the end of the British Empire. In many ways it has not been done because it doesn't seem like a topic - it’s the dog that doesn’t bark in the night. Why there wasn’t a raging debate in the Conservative Party about the end of the British Empire is the question that someone ought to get to grips with. Obviously, there are moments, but for the most part the British Empire ended with a whimper rather than a bang and you would expect the Conservative Party to make a noise about this. To a quite remarkable extent the only noises they did make were about the carryover from Empire into Britain like immigration, Suez or Rhodesia. It was a famous trap for candidates trying to get selected by constituencies during the Apartheid era where the members of the selection panel had usually got a few relatives in South Africa. The ‘kith and kin’ argument worked at that level. Somebody would ask, “what do you think Great Britain’s attitude to the Apartheid regime should be” which was a loaded gun pointing straight at you, because what does one say at this point? You know the person who asked the question wants you to say that you are all in favour of supporting South Africa whereas there are bound to be others on the panel who will cross your name straight out if you go down that route. Practically everybody who went up for selection got asked that question because there was always somebody who thought that was the most important issue. And that changed to Rhodesia after UDI and became an even more pointed issue, because it was clearly Britain’s responsibility more than any other nation’s.

MC: In a recent lecture at Gresham College on Edward Heath you opened by describing the social backgrounds of 20th Century Party leaders and how certain patterns emerge - Salisbury and Balfour followed by Bonar Law, Baldwin and Chamberlain, in turn succeeded by the more aristocratic Churchill, Macmillan and Douglas-Home, and then moving in a meritocratic direction with Heath to Howard. Now we have a former Etonian as Party leader. Has a new cycle begun?

JR: I think in a way it is the start of a new pattern, although it is very early to say. David Cameron was elected early enough in this parliament to be almost certainly somebody who’ll get thrown out if he doesn’t win the next election. Unless it is very close, in which case the Party will no doubt be so grateful that they will give him a second go. I am an historian, not a prophet, but I think there is a sense in which none of this matters so much any more. You can’t go any further down the scale socially than John Major – so from there to David Cameron is quite a long jump. In a sense Cameron’s whole way of doing things is to deny the relevance of these issues. It does seem to me that we have reached a point - mainly because of Tony Blair - where British politics is less about class. The Conservative Party can therefore move onto that territory too in the sense of not having to define itself in relation to the class of its leader and not having to project its leader in those ways, just as Labour resolutely refused to present Tony Blair in anything like the way a traditional Labour leader has ever been presented – John Smith would certainly have been a very different Prime Minister if he had lived.

MC: Interestingly, there is a school of thought from within Cameron’s circle that he is the logical heir to Disraeli and One Nation Conservatism. Does Disraeli’s message actually have any relevance for today’s Party?

JR: I think it always has relevance. Disraeli contributes many things. One is obviously that of an inclusive party, just by who he was. Becoming leader of the Conservative Party he opened up every other possibility that followed on; Bonar Law coming from obscurity, the first woman Prime Minister etc. All those things are in a sense following in Disraeli’s footsteps. The Conservative Party taught itself to believe that it could be the Party that makes these bold, sometimes circular, advances before the parties of the Left are prepared to do so and gets quite excited from time to time about moving in a decisive and radical direction.

One Nation is relevant here because if your leader can come from anywhere in the nation and with the Party for most of its life a leader-orientated party, then that makes you project yourself as a party for the whole country, where anyone can become leader. And that is, in a sense, more characteristic of American politics, the log cabin to White House sort of approach to life, than of most European countries, where conservative parties have usually been led by the wealthy, the churchgoers, the land-owners, as the British Conservative Party was in 1840, but gradually ceased to be under Disraeli. This is the only reason it survived, the only reason it prospered in the 20th Century, so there is one thing which is fundamental to Disraeli’s legacy.

MC: You have written on Churchill, although more from a cultural and social perspective rather than conventional biography. Has this genre ever tempted you?

JR: Funny you should say that, but indeed it has. I’m currently casting around about what I want to do next and one of the things I keep thinking about is a biography but I just can’t get excited about anybody enough to write about them. There is no real room for another Churchill biography. People keep producing them and they keep selling so maybe there is room, but I don’t think I want to write a Churchill biography anyway. It is very difficult to say. Biography is the most important non-fiction form of publication in Britain and is vastly more important in Britain than any other country, in terms of the share of the literary output. So in looking around for who is left to do you get down to the really rather low ranks of Tory leaders to find any substantial gap. A good life of Walter Long would be interesting, but I don’t know who would want to read it now, that’s the trouble.

MC: The last book that came out on Long was in relation to Ireland and the Union, and that was in the early 1990s.

JR: There hasn’t been a full biography of Long since Petrie’s in 1936, but that’s partly because there aren’t very good papers for a large chunk of his career and it can be very, very difficult to write a biography if there is not a good collection of papers.

MC: You could always look at Lord Willoughby de Broke

JR: I was responsible for getting Lord Willoughby de Broke’s papers deposited. I was the first person to read them and I went to see the then Lord Willoughby. I said to him, that these are valuable papers which should be deposited somewhere for safety. He asked where, and I took a deep breath and thought where would he like me to say? With one eye on 1911, I suggested the House of Lords’ Records Office as an appropriate place, which he thought a good idea. We then had a discussion about 1911. Bearing in mind that this would have been about 1970 when the conversation was taking place, he engaged me in a long discussion about whether the Parliament Act of 1911 had not, in fact, been a rather bad thing; it would have been much better (he argued) if the House of Lords had retained its power. The Willoughby de Brokes were die-hards unto the very end.

MC: And yet willing to countenance Asquith’s new Peers?

JR: There was a letter in that collection addressed to, I don’t think it was Carson, rather Craig, in Belfast around the time of the so-called Mutiny at the Curragh, in which Willoughby de Broke writes to the Ulster leaders saying that I am at your disposal, I can ride and shoot well and I have many tenants who will come with me. Just like 1642, whereas this was 1911 and he was proposing to raise Warwickshire for the Union! It’s wonderful. I guess Craig’s reply, while it doesn’t quite say calm down, old boy, that’s what it means. Obviously, what the Ulstermen needed was Lord Willoughby riding to the rescue. Instead, they pointed out they could look after themselves in Belfast, as indeed they could.

MC: I thoroughly enjoyed your book on Churchill, Man of the Century, particularly given its focus on the post-war English-speaking world.

JR: I got very interested in that, but there is actually a whole movement just started up. There is an annual conference on the English-speaking world with a focus on the network of these connections. I don’t think I could do it, but somebody really should write a book about the business connections. There’s a point I just turned up from 1937 concerning an Australian businessman from Melbourne, but who basically lived in London. One of his agents was in Germany and he picked up information about German rearmament, so he telephoned Churchill’s secretary and Churchill invited him for dinner the same night, along with Max Beaverbrook, Clive Baillieu and Jan Smuts. This was the English-speaking world gathered around Churchill’s dining table at four hour’s notice to discuss German rearmament. Here we have someone using his business connections to feed information to British politics and, through Beaverbrook, into the press network that goes all around the globe. I do not know how you begin to write that story, because the research is everywhere and you probably need a business historian to do it anyway, to examine corporate structures and the like. Horrendously difficult to untangle actually, but there’s a whole story about imperial co-operation that goes well into the post-war years of the 1950s. When Churchill died the International Chairman of the Churchill Trust was Baillieu, an Australian, the only post-war Australian ever to receive an English peerage – a rather interesting concept itself really, because he was a genuine Australian with an Australian accent and came from Melbourne, but he actually got a barony on the recommendation of the British Government, as opposed to the Australian.

MC: Despite being an ardent imperialist and monarchist Churchill not only connected with America but actually became a household name in the US. What was the secret of his success in that respect?

JR: I think it's partly just the obvious, that he was half-American and not only half-American, but he kept telling people that he was half-American. The New York papers were always talking about him visiting his relations when he was there. Paradoxically, the Americans regard Churchill as quintessentially British which is ridiculous because Churchill is such a one-off that he isn't quintessentially anything. They seem to have regarded Churchill as incarnating a sort of Britishness and at the same time they saw him as a bridge between Britain and America. He was perfectly conscious that he was doing exactly that all the way through his political life. Churchill, in a sense, is seeing the American empire as the fruition of the British Empire, easier for him to see it than anybody else given that he is half American. There are little quirks here, though. You know he went to Williamsburg in 1946 but refused to go to Yorktown, only a few miles away; he wouldn't go to see the site of this British defeat. He is also still perceived as being the sort of British leader that Americans get on with. Talks big and is not ashamed of his own importance. There are many quirks of character that Churchill had that do appeal to Americans in a way that the Baldwin model obviously did not. The typically more self-effacing repressed British leader of the Baldwin/Eden school always had great difficulty communicating or empathising with Americans and anyway they usually disliked Americans. Churchill never had that problem.

MC: Churchill was able to impress his personality during a time of war on influential, important Americans who would at a later stage go on to achieve the highest positions in government or business, such as Truman and Eisenhower.

JR: He worked very hard at that even with less prominent but useful people, such as Walter Graebner, a sort of middle-ranking executive with Life magazine. Henry Luce was the proprietor, but Graebner was an important figure in the editorial machine. When he visited Britain, Churchill took him to Chartwell and gave him the full three-star charm offensive. He showed Graebner the secret documents that were going into his war memoirs, took him on a tour of the house and allowed him to see the paintings in the studio. Predictably Graebner came out a total Churchill nut.

Churchill enjoyed showing off, but he did ration it. He did it when it mattered and he could be pretty ruthless about that as well when necessary, about knowing when it mattered. Churchill admirers and the Churchill industry generally don't concentrate on this side of his character, but he could be a real ‘bastard’ (in the John Major sense of the word). That was his strength, after all, in the end, and the ruthlessness with which he pursued his political career, the egocentricity which he behaved all his life, was what made him a great leader in 1940 when it could be projected outwards and against Hitler and the Nazi war machine. You didn't get one without the other, but in peace-time it was pretty hard to take for a lot of people. At least until after 1945.

MC: Another interesting section in the book details Churchill's somewhat fraught relationship with the Celts. The Welsh display some animosity towards him arising from Tonypandy, the Irish for the Anglo/Irish war, and even in Ulster, whose inhabitants he regards as kith and kin, there were also historical run-ins. Does this derive from Churchill’s home-counties, London-centric outlook?

JR: He had a very distinctively English outlook. If you go back to A History of the English-Speaking Peoples and look at the paragraphs he writes about the Union of England and Wales in 1536 and the Union with Scotland in 1707 there is no doubt that this was all a very good thing as far as Churchill is concerned. There was no question that the Scots and the Welsh have lost anything. Churchill was writing more or less what he had been taught at Harrow, about those events, and of the internal colonisation of the British Isles from an English, Anglocentric viewpoint. He empathised with the Scottish military tradition to a huge extent and writes about it in all sorts of different ways, and, of course, he commanded Scottish soldiers in the Great War, just as he fought alongside the Dublin Fusiliers in the Boer War. When it comes to the assertion of separateness in Scotland, Wales and Ireland though, Churchill just does not really understand it. He cannot understand why anybody would want to go it alone outside the United Kingdom with its Anglocentric and London-centric agenda. Ireland, of course, had a different set of issues altogether that pre-dated his career and, as I have shown, whenever there is serious opposition to Churchill in other places like America or Australia, you often find the Irish are at the bottom of it, because the Irish abroad are even more hostile to Churchill than the Irish at home.

MC: You concentrate on the English-speaking peoples of North America, New Zealand and Australia. What about Churchill’s involvement with Africa and Asia?

JR: Well, it was partly a question of space and time. I would have liked to have written a chapter on South Africa, to balance Canada, Australia and New Zealand. People keep telling me, that more people spoke English in India than in the rest of the world added together. But, of course, when Churchill thought about English-speaking peoples, he did not mean India. The trouble with trying to do India would be that if you do not speak Indian languages, you would not get anything like a balanced view. One can cover Ireland from English spoken and written sources. However, anything outside the white colonies is impossible to do without speaking the languages. You could do bits on India by using the English language newspapers, but that would actually be so unrepresentative of India that it would be actively misleading. South Africa is slightly different, as is say Singapore where the English language tradition is quite pronounced, because the white community was rather strong in the first place. Aside from fragments, I was not actually able to consider the rest of it because I just don't know where to start looking. I mean, how and where would you start on the Chinese view of Winston Churchill? I was staggered when the South Koreans asked for a translation of my book when there is still no French or German translation.

MC: Your latest book Don’t Mention The War charts the fractious 20th Century relations between Britain and Germany and is very different to any of your previous work. In respect of the post-1945 world, you use the medium of sport, popular culture and cinema to illustrate the story. In that period the mood is almost forgiving and reconciliatory, even at a grassroots level, whereas by the 1970s the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction. What do you attribute this to?

JR: This is what most surprised me. I knew a lot of the story before I set out to research the book. Obviously details surprise you in any piece of research, sometimes important trends take you aback, but I was struck by the actual chronology of this story. Although I was familiar with bits of it, even in my own mind I never put it together and I hadn't done the systematic research. Indeed, I had never read so many thrillers as I did for the purposes of this particular book. A great project to have to re-read all the John Le CarrĂ© and Len Deighton novels. Sitting in the British Library reading thrillers is wonderful! It surprised me that in the twenty years after the Second World War things began to move in a positive direction and in the first half of the 1960s seemed to be accelerating. The Queen's visit to Germany in 1965 seemed at the time (and was certainly reported by the press) as an important punctuation point that was settling the differences. They didn't know that she was rather upset, when some Germans, rhythmically chanting ‘Elizabeth’ reminded her of Nuremberg. However, then it all began to go the wrong way and while you can chart it, it's a lot more difficult to explain. I have only offered a tentative explanation because I do not know what the explanation really is. One of the negative answers is a failure of British leadership. We did not have in Britain what the French had from de Gaulle onwards, a political regime determined to lead their country into a harmonious relationship with Germany. The French had more bad treatment to forget from the Germans than we did, but de Gaulle determined to do it for the good of France not for the good of Germans, and, as later generations probably said, because of Europe. I suppose, they have more or less succeeded in completing that process. We simply have never had such leaders – we have had those who mouthed the right platitudes at times, but they never gave the country the lead. They send the Queen over in increasingly desperate visits to try and repair the damage, but these are always fireman operations rather than constructive initiatives. We have had leaders who enjoyed making jokes about the Germans and have done so in public. Nicholas Ridley is a case in point and he had to resign. It is quite interesting, I think, that in Mrs Thatcher's memoirs she still doesn't see why he had to resign. She actually says that it was a private conversation that should not have been repeated, as if you know, it is fine to beat up the Germans in private, but only when you say it in public is it a problem. Politically that is true but we need to get to the point where we stop being continuously nasty to the Germans in private, because the mindset needs to change. Just as we have had to change our attitudes, for example, concerning ethnic minorities in Britain; leaders have actually worked very hard at that and achieved a great deal. There is a long way to go, but when you think back to what Enoch Powell predicted in connection with the British relationship with West Indians then there has been a massive movement in the right direction. We have got no equivalent of the race relations industry to deal with Germany because politicians have never given it the priority and as a result of that things have actually moved steadily in a worse direction.

Another thing which I did hint at in the book is that we have had to find another way of expressing ourselves compared to being a world imperial power. The Scots have rediscovered Scottishness, the Welsh have rediscovered Welshness, the Irish have succeeded brilliantly in the European Union and Ulster is being its usual befuddled self as a siege mentality, albeit now two siege mentalities alongside each other. The English have got no sense of who they are any more. For the past two decades, sitting around the table in this room, I ask people their nationality at the beginning of the first class on a modern British course, just as an ice-breaking exercise. Everybody says what their nationality is in either one word or two words and a hyphen, so they can use Irish-American or Asian-British if they want to. What’s fascinating is that over that twenty-year period the word ‘British’ has vanished. Virtually nobody now says British unless they're Asian because Asians don't think of themselves as English, whereas the white population in the United Kingdom by and large calls itself Scots, Welsh and English, while interestingly enough a few now say ‘European’. Some of our overseas students are likely to say European, unless they're French, in which case they're ‘French’. But the United Kingdom, if you like, has ceased to exist in the mindsets of twenty year-olds, and they think they're English, but what does it mean to be English? It's a lot easier to be Scots than English, in that sense, because the identity is defined against Englishness. All the people who work on the history of identity have a common view that you define your identity against something as well as in favour of something. As Linda Colley showed, when the British national identity developed in the 18th Century it was in contra-distinction to France - they were Catholic, were under an autocratic government, ate funny things like frogs’ legs; we were Protestant, free and ate roast beef. These are all parodies of reality, but such parodies are what make national identity. The Scots can quite easily redefine themselves post-imperially as not English. In all sorts of ways from dress - you go to Edinburgh on a Saturday night and see how many kilts there are on young men just going to the pub - not like that 30 years ago at all, and that's because it is defiantly Scottish and that partly means it is not English as much as anything else. There is no English national dress, no English national accent that we think of as an accent, i.e. more than regional, since we just assume that it is the proper way to talk. There are all sorts of ways in which we don't have, we've never felt we needed to have, an Englishness, so we go back to remembering our finest hour and we find ourselves against Germany. The Second World War still lives and is an obsession for the English. Interestingly you don't get the football chants when Germany plays Scotland or Wales that one hears even when even a German club side comes to Merseyside or Arsenal.

MC: Has your book been translated into German?

JR: There is a discussion going on right now with a German publisher. I would be disappointed if it isn't, because I'd actually very much like to see what Germans make of it. Some Germans have read it. I went to the Edinburgh Book Fair and signed books after I had spoken. Whenever I have done anything like that in the last few months there have been significant numbers of people queuing, asking to dedicate it to ‘Helmut’ or ‘Reinhard’. I usually reply by saying you don't look like Helmut or Reinhard and they reply that it is for a friend. They are buying this book for their German friends, an extraordinary thing - to buy a book on how the British hate the Germans for your German friends! The Edinburgh session was really rather striking. Two successive people in the queue had very different experiences. The first person was amazed that I was dealing with this subject. He had lived in Edinburgh for twenty-five years, was German, and had never had any issues with his Germanness. I asked where he worked? He was a university lecturer. I responded by saying that universities are rather unusual places and that the sort of things said on football terraces would probably be largely absent. The very next person in the queue said to me that she appreciated my comments as I had just described the life she had had since leaving Germany. She came back with a British Army Sergeant in 1947 and was now quite elderly. She said that she had been made so miserable by the Scots when she first got to Edinburgh. I asked what did she do for a living and she indicated that she was a schoolteacher. There you are, a University lecturer and a schoolteacher. One of them interacts with a particular sort of people and the other one interacts with the entire community and has a different life experience in the same city over much the same period. Part of the problem is that a number of people have said to me, I don't understand this and I have never experienced anything like this, apart from the jokes. But they don't stand on the terraces of the football ground, they don't go into working-class pubs and they don't read the Sun. The Guardian-reading professional classes have become perfectly integrated Europeans, in that sense, but this is not the majority of the population. We have got this divide between the elite and mass culture and I suppose this may be the answer to my question as to why politicians don't give the lead - they don't want to lose touch with mass culture. They dare not. Perhaps Mr Cameron will be the man to lead the way. Who knows? Not, I suspect if he listens to the wily whispers of Lynton Crosby from Churchill’s ‘English Speaking Peoples’ down-under.

1 Responses to An interview with Professor John Ramsden

  1. Simon Says:
  2. The section on Willoughby de Broke is tantalising. If only Ramsden had actually answered Coalter's question on Willoughby de Broke accepting Asquith's 500 new peers.

    And considering the resurgence of violence in Northern Ireland at the time of Ramsden's talks with the noble Lord, I can't say I blame him for remaining a "die hard" to the end.

    I don't know if it's been superseded yet, but there's a very good portrait (and sympathetic, too) of the Diehards written by an American: Philips, Gregory D. (1979). "The Diehards: Aristocratic Society And Politics In Edwardian England." Cambridge: Harvard University Press.


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