Friday, July 14, 2017

British academics and elites

By Rolf Dumke

A recent interchange with a college friend over Fintan O’Toole’s essay in The New York Review of Books, “Britain: The End of a Fantasy” (June 10), brought to mind some personal impressions I formed of Britain while in Europe again after my time of growing up in America. These impressions support O’Toole’s contention that the Conservative Party’s Eton-Oxford elite have fiddled away Britain’s economic and political future out of pure intra-party skirmishes and arrogance.
    In the 1980s and early 1990s I spent many weeks in British universities. At Oxford I gave lectures in two colleges, All Souls and the new St. Antony’s College, where many scholars work on modern European themes.
All Souls College (on the right)
viewed from St. Mary the Virgin’s Tower
    In All Souls College, traditional views were dominant. I happened to visit on a fall weekend when the college was closed to all outsiders in order to choose two new fellows from a promising group of bright young scholars. My host, Peter Mathias, was the Chichele Professor of Economic History, that field’s most prominent position in the Commonwealth. He had, however, booked me at All Souls by mistake, so had to invite me to stay in his grand apartment in a fine historical house with his family.
    We had a wonderful tea at the college with a friend of his there, a seasoned law professor. They soon struck up a common theme: the chores of incessantly updating the Times of London’s obituaries of still living, prominent scholars and persons in Britain. They kidded each other about how to write up the lives of persons, some of whom they disdained, and whether recent information required altering their opinions.
    These two old codgers loved their position of making or breaking the reputation of their peers. Nothing else mattered in comparison, besides choosing the new fellows at All Souls, who would be prominent men in Britain in the future. The two men’s discussion seemed excessively parochial to me. To them, only Britain and its grand past and its present elites mattered, not the opinion of anybody else. It was a closed world in which the old elites made all of the important decisions.
    The money men from London present for this occasion loved to be part of this circle, but they knew that intellectual deference to the old Oxford professors was mandatory. I was told that past alumni present that weekend would include an old prime minister and many bankers from London, who, for the occasion, slept in the college’s musty old dorms. They would not only discuss the merits of the candidates, whose files were spread out on a long table, but would also exchange opinions on the state of the country and its present leadership.


My lecture to Mathias’s large seminar in All Souls – on the economics of the German customs union of 1834, the earliest precursor of the Common Market – was disappointing. Only one unusual young scholar – at the end of the long table, dressed in worn-out, torn jeans and a wrinkled blue shirt (not the coat and tie favored by the other men) – asked interesting questions.
    This was Nick Crafts, from St. Antony’s College. After my lecture he invited me to give a lecture at St. Antony’s in the spring to his group of doctoral students. That presentation was an intellectual high point: I was given many interesting questions on my then current topic, the history of economic inequality in Germany since the 19th century.
    After my spring presentation at St. Antony’s, Nick took me to a pub to have a beer. He asked about my ideas for interesting new research. I told him that current research in the economic development of poor countries could provide new questions and answers to economic historians, and I gave him an example: Hollis Chenery, at Harvard, had written a book in 1975, Patterns of Development, 1950-75, in which he showed that as countries got richer their industrial mix shifted from agriculture first to manufacturing and then to service industries. Urbanization rose as well; with higher incomes, a rising percentage of the young population attended schools. Chenery and co-author Syrquin showed that many other socio-economic trends were influenced by a country’s rising income.
    I argued that Chenery’s statistical correlations between socio-economic trends and the per capita incomes of today’s less developed countries might also apply to the past, and that one could estimate levels and trends of a country’s income from other socio-economic information in the 19th century, before any estimates of per capita income were possible because of the lack of regular censuses of people or enterprises.
    Nick smiled at me and said, “I’ve just done that for England in my new book on British economic growth.” [Crafts, Nick (1985). British Economic Growth during the Industrial Revolution. Oxford University Press.]
    He invited me to participate in a month-long series of seminars during a following summer at Warwick University, in Coventry, where he had just been appointed to a professorship in economic history. He had a grant from the European Commission to invite a select group of top European and US specialists to focus on the patterns and causes of growth in Europe after the war ended in 1945.
    While at Warwick, I started on my paper on “Reassessing the Wirtschaftswunder,” for the Oxford Bulletin of Economics and Statistics, 1990, my most highly cited publication. (People are still citing it.)


At St. Antony’s I had first been invited by a bright young scholar, Patrick O’Brien, the later great agricultural historian, to see how weekly paper topics for his individual students were presented and discussed. He invited me to accompany him for dinner in college that evening. [See Wikipedia entry on St. Antony’s College.]
    At dinner I participated in the elaborate ritual of “high table” at Oxford, with the warden of the college, the debonaire, later Sir Raymond Carr. The evening started with Sherry, upstairs in the library, where guests were introduced to Carr and to other guests, who then formed groups to go down into the dining hall “high tables.” Formal dinner took place with guests all seated at two long horizontal “high tables” and the rest of the college researchers sitting at perpendicular rows of tables behind them. A Burgundy white wine was served with the fish and a Bordeaux red with the meat. An unusual special guest that evening was Alexander Thynn, previously an only-one-semester student at St. Antony’s but presently the 7th Marquess of Bath and owner of the Elizabethan palace, Longleat, the most extravagant and beautiful Renaissance palace in England, near Bath.

O’Brien explained that Thynn’s father had paid for inheritance duties by establishing the first Safari park around an old palace in Britain.
    Thynn was at St. Antony’s with one of his many “wifelets,” a buxom blonde, both of them wearing black leather motorcycle outfits and sitting next to the warden at high table – along with O’Brien and me.
    For the final course of dinner, the guests all followed Carr, Thynn, and wifelet to a comfortable basement dining room to be served French cheeses, Port and Madeira, and nuts, followed with Cognac, coffee, and Cuban cigars. On this occasion, the visitors were re-seated and had a chance to speak with other guests than those at high table.

    After three hours “high tables” and cheeses, many guests were now thirsty for a few pints of ale in the pub across the street, where I met Alexander Thynn and his lovely wifelet. Thynn discussed the stress he had experienced that year, participating in a TV program called “A Year in the Life of X,” where he had to think up visually interesting events, like learning to fly a powered hang glider and barely avoiding mortal crashes, or painting the high walls of Longleat’s long halls with huge erotic murals under the gaze of a TV camera.
    Alexander heard I taught at a German university and immediately wanted to know if his estate could devolve out of England, whether he could join the Common Market and how much lower his taxes would be. Meanwhile, his wifelet was wowing other invited international scholars with her breathy exhortation, “You’re so smart!,” which enchanted a political scientist from Argentina so much that he ignored the steps down to the sidewalk from the pub entrance and so flew out of the pub and crashed, incising a lasting memory of Wifelet 35, or so.
    Read about Thynne in Wikipedia, where you’ll get an idea of the extravagance and penny-pinching of the English elites and how they are cherished by Oxford. The Observer’s article, “The loins of Longleat” [March 9, 2002], tells an interesting story of Thynn’s mania of painting erotic murals in Longleat’s halls and staircases.


My first visit of a British University was the University of Liverpool in 1981, at a high point of Margaret Thatcher’s regime. This was a double new experience for me, learning about the inner workings of a British university and running into unexpected political conflicts between Labor and Conservative ideas which had spilled over into the universities and poisoned their dialog.
    I had been invited by Bob Lee, a young and enterprising economic historian at Liverpool, to present a paper of my new view of why the Zollverein of 1834, the German historical customs union, had been created: it was to collect new taxes. Lee was the de facto leader of a headless department of economic history, who became a professor and head of the department later. He had established an unusual, close personal relationship and a research network with top young researchers in Germany, first at the University of Muenster’s department of economic and social history, led by the American scholar, Richard Tilly, and later elsewhere. Lee invited us to give lectures in Liverpool. This gave us an insight into the source of self-confidence and independence of junior personnel in British universities (tenure), versus the limited head-and-master dependent relationship in Germany. All invited “Assistenten” gained independence and confidence by the British experience.
    Lee’s invitation was our first to a British university, before formal bilateral research exchanges were established at St. Antony’s College, and before the activity of the new German Historical Institute on Bloomsbury Square at Great Russell Street in London, with its dynamic head, Wolfgang Mommsen. [See the Wikipedia article on the German Historical Institute in London, with pictures of the beautifully renovated house by John Nash, its venue.]
[Photo by Philafrenzy - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0]
    At Liverpool I visited Bob Nobay, a friend and former colleague at Queen’s University in Canada, who had just gotten a professorship in economics in a department headed by the pugnacious Patrick Minford, a champion of an untrammeled market economy in the style of Margaret Thatcher. Both Nobay and Minford were enamored of the concept of “rational expectations,” an idea cherished by conservative economists at the time. [Read Wikipedia on Patrick Minford for a good discussion of his ideas in British politics and research.]
    The members of Liverpool’s economic history department, instead, were a strongly left-leaning group of scholars who fervently believed in a large role for the state in the economy and society of the country. They were especially supported by the historian Pat Hudson, later author of The Industrial Revolution [1992, Edward Arnold], which criticizes much of the modern economic history of Britain that argues that the Industrial Revolution was a continuous project with no stark breaks in economic or social development. Hudson argued that there were resulting, revolutionary breaks in British society.
    Pat and her historian friends were aghast to learn that I was a friend of Nobay and that I had attended a party for a visiting speaker in the economics department the previous evening. Cohorting with the devil was my charge! I had been deep into the enemy camp of Liverpool’s laborite and socialist historians. The historians saw economists as their enemy, a clash found elsewhere in Britain. The City of Liverpool is and has been a bastion for the Labor Party. Its university drew like students from around the country. In its midst was a very conservative economics department, a bastion of views for a robust market economy, whose research was funded by a conservative government in London.


British universities are a political battleground. Nonetheless, faculty senior common rooms were everywhere teeming with academic gossip. From Aberdeen in Scotland to the London School of Economics or Birkbeck in London, or Cardiff in Wales, a prime topic was always the career of Oxford alumni and their peccadillos, whether learned at second or third hand, or from even more remote sources.
    British universities are a peculiar environment, theoretically left-wing but exorbitantly interested in the elites. I often got the impression that British academics were the playthings of their elites. I recall riding around Oxford in James Foreman-Peck’s big old Jaguar with other fellows of St. Antony’s, and feeling that just as Jim played with his steering wheel, the British elites played with the rest of the country, taking it for a ride. I’m afraid that this is still happening today.


Copyright © 2017 by Rolf Dumke

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