Daniel Hannan is an MEP for South-East England, and a journalist, author and broadcaster. His most recent book is What Next: How to Get the Best from Brexit.
One good thing – only one – came out of Oliver Letwin’s wrecking amendment earlier this month. It meant that I was able to come back from Strasbourg for Norman Stone’s memorial service.
Had the Withdrawal Bill been approved by the Commons as scheduled, we MEPs would have been voting on it last week, Britain would be leaving tomorrow – and I would have missed my chance to bid a final farewell to perhaps the most capacious, restless, inspiring mind I have encountered.
As it was, I was able to take my place in St Martin-in-the-Fields among hundreds of (for want of a better shorthand) conservative intellectuals. There were dozens of Tory peers and MPs, scores of distinguished writers and academics and a good number of those anti-communist Mittel-European thinkers who, in many ways, made up Norman’s hinterland.
Arriving just in time from the European Parliament, I found myself between Peter Lilley and Alan Sked, the LSE historian who founded the Anti-Federalist League in 1991, changing its name to UKIP in 1993. Dominic Cummings ambled in a little late wearing what looked like a black gilet for the occasion. Michael Gove and Andrew Roberts were among those who gave readings. You get the picture: here was the tribe massing to mourn one of its own.
Not just the tribe, though. Norman was generous and eclectic in his friendships. Also giving readings were Tim Garton Ash, the historian whose enthusiasm for European integration recently won him the Charlemagne Prize, and Robert Harris, the brilliant Blairite novelist who turned Norman into “Fluke” Kelso, the alcoholic Scottish hero of Archangel – portrayed, to Norman’s amused delight, by Daniel Craig in the film version.
We sometimes toss out the word “influential” too easily, but Norman was a man who truly shaped the thinking of a whole generation of historians. He taught his students to look with fresh eyes, to notice what others had missed. He amassed what must be the greatest trove of historical asides collected by a single human being. His histories, like his gravelly-voiced soliloquys, fizzed with facts that were at once pertinent and astonishing: Nikita Khruschev bought his maths lessons from a starving professor for a sack of potatoes; serfdom was formally abolished in England only in 1922. Those gems are picked more or less randomly from the hundreds that stud Norman’s last work, Hungary: A Short History, published earlier this year. To read that book, or any in his oeuvre, is like sitting spellbound as the master raconteur poured whisky in and anecdotes out.
Could Norman happen today? What I mean is, could a professor with his personality and his opinions achieve an equivalent position in our national conversation? One has only to put the question.
Norman’s critics held that his lifestyle disqualified him as a serious academic. They wrote him off as a flâneur, an adventurer, a journalist. He certainly had a colourful romantic life, and showed scant respect for the usual pieties of his caste.
But there is no doubting his scholarship. When he was 43, he left Cambridge to become Professor of Modern History at Oxford, arguably the supreme accolade for an academic historian. His books were not frequent, but they won prizes. His knack for languages bordered on the miraculous. He spoke French, German, Greek, Italian, Polish, Russian, Serbo-Croat and Spanish. More impressively, he mastered both Hungarian and Turkish, becoming convinced in the process that they were more closely connected than linguists usually allow. When I say “mastered”, I don’t mean, as historians sometimes do, that he could get through source material with the aid of a dictionary. I mean that he could deliver a speech or conduct a TV interview in that tongue.
While he was at Cambridge, his fellow dons wondered whether anyone could be quite as linguistically capable as he appeared, and would seat him at dinner next to any visiting Eastern European scholar, hoping to show him up. The two would chat away animatedly. Afterwards, the other fellows would ask the visitor whether Stone was as fluent as he claimed. “Oh, yes,” the answer would come, “he has a quite extraordinary idiomatic grasp of my language – but he appears to have learned it from a pimp”.
In an age when many tutors put in office hours before returning to family homes, Norman was a constant presence, always the centre of attention, the aperçus flowing. (“There is nothing inevitable in history, so good historians should never use the word ‘inevitable’ – except for ‘German counter-attack.’”) He was more interested in teaching than in writing. He liked students, taking an unfeigned interest in their development, remembering every detail of what they had written.
Had he been on the Left, he would have been regarded as one of our towering public intellectuals. His bohemianism and affairs of the heart would have been seen as natural, indeed laudable, embellishments. But Norman committed the ultimate sin: he was a Thatcherite. Anarchic and irreverent, he never liked governments telling people what to do. In the end, his disdain for the pettiness and provincialism of the British academy drove him to give up Oxford’s top job for a larger budget and a higher salary in Ankara.
When Norman first started teaching, around one in three British academics identified as Right-of-Centre. Today, that number is one in eight – and far lower in the humanities. To be a conservative academic is to be a class traitor. Norman’s death was marked by a poisonous attack by the Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, masquerading as a Guardian obituary. Norman had committed the sin, apparently, of being a Right-wing journalist instead of a serious academic. (That professor’s next article likened Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament to the Nazi seizure of power. Any amount of journalistic bombast is fine in an academic, it seems, provided he is on the Left.)
Heterodoxy and free thinking are being snuffed out in the institutions that exist to defend them. A modern Norman Stone, finding the doors of higher education barred, would go elsewhere. He would doubtless be better off financially, but the rest of us would be impoverished.
I did not grieve for my old friend as I left the church: he lived and died on his own terms, God rest his soul. But I grieved for the state of higher education in Britain. I grieve still.
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