Whig heir shows liberal roots

April 11, 1997

Conrad Russell, scion of one of the most patrician families in the land, is unhappy with Tony Blair's lurch to the right. The Liberal Democrat peer tells Huw Richards why he detests new Labour

Finding some peers of the realm is not difficult. "Turn right before you reach the statue of my great-grandfather, then walk down the corridor past the rather sentimental Victorian painting of the parting of Lord and Lady Russell," Conrad Russell tells me. When this professor of history offers instructions on how to meet in the House of Lords you get a sense of just how at home he must feel in the Palace of Westminster.

There is no shortage of distinguished historians in the Lords - cross-bencher Asa Briggs and the Conservatives, Robert Blake and Max Beloff, are among them - but unlike them, Russell is here by inheritance, having, at the age of 50 in 1987, succeeded his half-brother as the fifth Earl Russell.

Now professor at King's College, London, he had known he was likely to succeed to the peerage title - his half-brother was 15 years older. It doubtless did no harm, though, that almost the first large-scale legislation to reach the House in 1988 was the Education Reform Bill, allowing him to make his early intervention as a Liberal Democrat spokesman on relatively familiar ground.

He admits he was pleasantly surprised to have taken to the Lords quite so well and argues that the Upper House, and its hereditary aspect, still have their place in modern politics. "Of course you can't argue that it is legitimate, but it does work. When Lords and Commons disagree, more often than not the Lords are closer to public opinion. And the hereditary element provides an input from people who would be unlikely to win preferment under any system of political patronage, myself included, I suspect."

Despite the fact that Russell has moved far beyond the dynastic preoccupations of his clan - one of the liveliest and least predictable of the great landed families - there is little doubt that his background helped stimulate early interest in history. He recalls as a five-year-old being shown a picture of William, Lord Russell, who was executed in 1683; his father, the philosopher Bertrand Russell, told him, "he was a good man, so the king cut his head off". It would take a rather incurious child not to be provoked by such a story. His great-grandfather sat alongside Gladstone at the Cabinet table - and it was John Russell, not Gladstone, who was prime minister at the time.

Russell opted for history over classics while a pupil at Eton, a mild act of rebellion since the school felt that classics would give him a better chance of getting a university scholarship. Nevertheless, he earned a place at Merton College, Oxford, and forged a formidably successful career as a historian, chiefly of the 17th century. He obtained a Yale chair at the age of 42, successive London professorships, and a fellowship of the British Academy.

His knowledge of history is evident, in his conversation and in his Lords interventions, though he is wary of exaggerated claims for his discipline. He acceptsGeoffrey Elton's view that "there are no completely right answers" in history, although arguing that one or two propositions, such as the once-fashionable idea that the English civil war was caused by a bourgeois revolution, might be completely wrong. "I'm not sure that history can tell you many big things, but it can tell you a lot of little things," he says. But he is unimpressed by A. J. P. Taylor's jibe that, as a student of history, the French emperor Napoleon III "learnt from the mistakes of the past, how to make the mistakes of the present". There are limits to history's predictive ability. "It can't tell you what will happen, but it can suggest what might happen," he argues.

So any minister attempting to justify an unattractive policy in the Lords is liable to be confronted by an upright, precisely spoken figure on the Liberal Democrat benches pointing to a historical parallel. For instance, there was the Government's idea to make parents take responsibility for their children's misdeeds. "Exactly the same thing was tried in 1601," he tells me, "and it proved entirely unworkable." Then there was the benefits fraud hotline, which prompted an analogy with official encouragement to denounce heretics under Queen Mary and witches under the first Queen Elizabeth. "What happens very rapidly is that such schemes become primarily a means of settling local feuds," he explains. The poll tax drew the acid comment that a 20 per cent decline in the electoral roll at least represented some improvement on the previous attempt to introduce such a tax; in 1377 the drop was 30 per cent. Norman Tebbit, complaining that some European legislation was an unprecedented erosion of national sovereignty, was told that the Act of Union in 1707 did the same to Scotland.

Russell's interventions are always made with the courtesy that characterises the Upper House. "It makes sense to be courteous if you think you may be sitting opposite the same person for another 30 years," he says. That presentation and a somewhat Victorian manner might lead some to underestimate him. But the growing respect with which opponents, particularly on what might be termed the Blair-sceptic wing of the Labour party, regard his contribution to politics, undermines that view.

Had his elevation to the Lords come at a much earlier age, he might not necessarily have taken the Liberal whip. "I was on the fence between Labour and Liberals from 1959 to 1974, before finally coming to rest as a Liberal." This is not entirely out of character with an earldom which has oscillated from its origins with a Whig prime minister through a member of Ramsay MacDonald's second administration to the nuclear disarmer Bertrand. It may at some point shift again, as Russell cheerfully confesses that his eldest son is a keen Labour supporter.

His political persuasion had its roots in two events during the February 1974 election. "I saw a television programme during the miners' strike involving the miners' leader Joe Gormley, the Coal Board's Derek Ezra (now a colleague in the Lords), Labour MP Michael Foot and Conservative MP William Whitelaw. When they were interviewed together, the two from industry almost instinctively started to negotiate with each other. The politicians just talked at each other, showing how absurd and damaging a style of politics based on class hatred is. Then as the campaign ended, Jeremy Thorpe concluded his final broadcast with the words: 'If you agree with me, then vote for us'. And I did."

The price of his allegiance has been exclusion from power, which he recognises as highly frustrating. "But I think that the Liberal tradition is in good shape at the moment and I can't believe that the public will carry on forever voting for the other two parties." Believing that the Conservative party would split if it won power again - "I cannot see how it can possibly take a decision on the common currency without splitting irrevocably" - he nevertheless looks forward to a Labour victory at the election with deep distrust. Had a Labour-Liberal Democrat government been formed in 1992 he would, he admits, have "jumped at the opportunity" of a ministerial job. This time, however, he would not be so keen.

His reference to the Liberal tradition's prosperity is not, as it might be from some other party members, a reference to the transformation of Labour. It does not mean that he is unhappy with everything that Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Tony Blair have accomplished in the past decade. "Several changes had to come. The theoretical commitment to socialism always struck me as a mirage, so that is no loss. A politics based on class opposition was always damaging to the country and the inability to speak to the City had to go."

So why has he emerged as one of the most incisive critics of New Labour, notably in a biting New Left Review article late last year? "If your complaint about the Labour party was that it was too left-wing, I can see that you'd be very happy with them now. But my complaint was always that they were too right-wing," he explains. Far from that being an unlikely position for a hereditary aristocrat, he says his stance is a logical consequence of the Liberal Whig tradition. "It all depends how you define left and right. The Whig tradition was and is above all else opposed to the spread of arbitrary power."

He is unhappy with Labour's economic policies as well, in the same article comparing Gordon Brown with Philip Snowden, the chancellor whose obsessive orthodoxy helped destroy Ramsay MacDonald's 1929-31 Labour government. "The commitment on spending limits means it is impossible for them to tackle any of the big problems of education and health."

What he really dislikes are Labour's social policies. "There is a moralising, authoritarian element which I deeply dislike. I believe Blair is more naturally authoritarian than Major. Failing to oppose the second reading of the Criminal Sentences Act was unforgivable, and I don't mean that just in the rhetorical sense. Blair's speech to the Nexus conference, where he talked about withdrawing entitlement to benefit, was at the very least an incitement to crime."

Labour, he argues, has kept its worst authoritarian instincts while dumping its best features. "I see no evidence that Labour is interested in doing anything to diminish prime ministerial patronage and I no longer get the sense that it hates poverty, believes in public services or is interested in providing opportunities for the disadvantaged."

When it takes a fifth earl to provide us with such a reminder, it becomes hard to believe that British politics is not going through some form of transformation.

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments