The Life of Lewis Namier and His Vanished Supremacy

D.W. Hayton’s book is the first full-scale biography of Namier, who was once considered the greatest historian in the English language.

The historian who became famous as Lewis Namier was born in Russian Poland in 1888. His actual name was Ludwik Bernsztajnvel Niemirowski. He earned his reputation in England as a historian writing in English. Even many people who have heard of him and read what he wrote are unaware of his Polish origins. For a few years in the second half of the 1950s and early 1960s (he died in 1960), Namier was considered the greatest historian in the English language.

He was also immensely influential – striding down the corridors of power, holding forth in the senior common rooms of Oxbridge or London clubs like The Athenaeum and rubbing shoulders with the great and the good of his times. He is the only historian, as Hayton notes in this detailed and appreciative biography, to have contributed a new word to the English language – Namierise. It was considered fashionable among historians, at one time, to Namierise – defined as the study of institutions or groups through collective biographies and how these lives were linked through similar interests or were in conflict. The proper name given to this method is prosopography.

D.W. Hayton
Conservative Revolutionary: The Lives of Lewis Namier Manchester University Press

Within some years of Namier’s death, his reputation took a severe beating and only the very brave or the very loyal took his work and his method of studying history seriously. In fact, to be a Namierite or to Namierise was the sin of sin among the disciples of Clio. Hayton’s biography provides an opportunity, principally because of the wealth of information, personal and professional, that he has unearthed, to look back at the rise and fall of Namier’s reputation. Hayton’s book is the first full-scale biography of Namier. Prior to this book one had to fall back on an account of his life written by his widow, Julia, which Hayton describes as “a ventriloquised autobiography”; and a short but very perceptive introduction to his work by the historian Linda Colley.

Namier was born into a Jewish family which never practised the Jewish religion. His boyhood and his adolescence, though spent in rural idyllic surroundings, were not very happy as he was at odds with his father over politics, religion among other things. When he was eighteen Ludwik decided to leave home. He became a student in the University of Lausanne. In the one term he was there (till March 1907), he was impressed by Vilfredo Pareto who lectured on sociology. His intellectual dissatisfaction and curiosity took him to the London School of Economics. He did not enjoy his short stint at the LSE in spite of his belief that England was “the most civilized and humane society in the world”. It was a belief he clung to for the rest of his life.

Namier found an intellectual home in Balliol College, Oxford where he went up to study history at the invitation of A.L. Smith, who was then a rather influential don at Balliol. The college with its easy fusion of intellectual excellence and social cache remained for Namier “a kind of lode-star”. But his relationship with Oxford was a mixture of love and loathing. He wanted to belong but in 1911 he was not elected a fellow of All Souls. He went on to teach at Manchester University, from where he retired as professor of history in 1953. In 1948, Balliol made him an honorary fellow. This was the only formal tie he had with his alma mater.

Balliol College in Oxford. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/By Peter Trimming, CC BY SA 2.0

A new way of looking at political history

In 1913, he became a British citizen and Anglicised his name to Lewis Bernstein Namier. He shot into academic prominence in 1929 with the publication of his first and best-known book The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III. With this book, Namier ushered in a new way of looking at constructing political history which was based neither on mere narrative nor only on events. What drew Namier was human motive: what drove members of the English elite to come to the House of Commons, with whom and for what reasons did they form ties and how did these ties affect the making of policy and decisions? These were some of the questions that Namier posed. And he came up with startling answers.

Namier wanted to study the British “political nation” in the second half of the 18th century, when Britain lost its American colonies. He proceeded to do this “by concentrating on that marvellous microcosmos, the British House of Commons”. He believed that by pursuing this line of enquiry, he could bring to light the “underlying realities” of British political life. His point of departure was the question: “Why Men went into Parliament?”

To answer this, he made a detailed study of the House of Commons as it was constituted at the time of George III’s accession. His study led him to the following very unusual conclusion:

“Here is an ant-heap, with human ants hurrying in long files along their various paths; their joint achievement does not concern us, nor the changes which supervene in their community, only the pathetically intent, seemingly self-conscious running of individuals along beaten tracks.”

In this prefatory statement, Namier enunciated some of the basic premises of not only his book but also of his view of politics. What was of consequence was not the outcome (“joint achievement”), but the purpose of which the concerned individuals were “seemingly self-conscious” when in reality they were hurrying down beaten paths. What informed those beaten paths? In Namier’s view, it was self-interest. Individuals did not enter Parliament to serve or pursue any noble cause or ideology (a word that Namier particularly disliked). “Men went there [Parliament],” Namier wrote, “to make a figure’, and no more dreamt of a seat in the House in order to benefit humanity than a child dreams of a birthday cake that others may eat it; which is perfectly normal and in no way reprehensible…the seat in the House was not their ultimate goal but a means to ulterior aims.”

Those aims were to be part of the select group who were seen to be in Britain, to be a figure. By linking the aspirations of individuals with their self-interest and cynical ambitions, Namier had eroded the influence that ideas and ideals could have on politics. Hence, the most common charge against Namier that he had taken the mind out of politics. There was one other thing that Namier had done: political decision making was the result of fortuitous coming together of certain interest groups or factions. The latter had no permanent mooring but they were formed when vested interests coincided.

British House of Commons. Photo: Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

These conclusions of Namier were buttressed by micro biographies of members of parliament. This was a new method of historical analysis which departed from looking at the biographies of only great men. Namier was also inaugurating another historiographical revolution. Before Namier, British – more specifically English – history was analysed as an onward and unstoppable march to democracy, liberalism and modernity. This was the destiny of Britain.

This view has come to be somewhat pejoratively described as Whig Interpretation of History. By attempting to show that history was driven by cynical self-interest and not by ideas, Namier had put the Whig Interpretation into its coffin. But even those who appreciated Namier’s discarding of the Whig Interpretation were not with him in his complete indifference to the role of ideas and his premise that the political nation could be understood only through the working of parliament.

George Rude in his book Wilkes and Liberty showed how important ideas were in the politics of Namier’s chosen period. And John Brewer in Party Ideology and Popular Politics at the Accession of George III, a title deliberately chosen to echo the title of Namier’s book, inverted the latter’s argument by showing the politicisation of the lower classes as manifest in the circulation of cheap printed tracts and pamphlets, ritualised crowd behaviour and street theatre. Ideology was thriving in Britain over which George III tried to rule through hand-picked ministers.

Serious criticisms of Namier

The serious criticisms of Namier came after the Second World War, by which time he had, to use his own phrase, made himself a figure. Namier achieved public prominence through a series of essays and reviews which were collected to make separate books and by authoring a history of parliament which he left incomplete. The essay was Namier’s forte – he mastered the art of the telling phrase and the most apt aphorism. To take a random example of the latter: “An amateur”, Namier once wrote, “is a man who thinks more about himself than about his subjects.” Namier’s fame as a historian made him a key advisor to the government on appointments in history – the Regius Chairs in Oxford and Cambridge. He was also an ardent Zionist and worshipped Chaim Weizmann.

The writing of history goes through cycles and patterns. It is no longer fashionable to Namierise or to see politics as being devoid of ideas and ideals. But the gradual disappearance of the grand narrative in history writing has revived in a very different way “the microscopic method” that Namier advocated – the detailed investigation of human lives and institutions. Isaiah Berlin in a celebrated and deeply perceptive essay on Namier described the latter’s method as “a sort of pointillisme“. In abandoning the broad brush and by nurturing the craft of the historian rather than the philosophy of history, Clio’s muse has not completely turned its back on Lewis Namier.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of history, Ashoka University.