Honouring Robert Conquest

r conquestOne of the perks of working at Downing Street in my day (the mid-to-late 1980s) was that you were invited to propose candidates for the Honours List. You weren’t encouraged to propose too many people, or to do so too often, and there was certainly no guarantee that your candidates would get beyond the hurdle of the first patronage committee meeting. But it was a pleasant—okay, slightly grand—feeling to know that some worthy person might have his worth recognised as a result of your proposal.

I proposed two people. The first was Professor Norman Gash, the author of a classic biography of the great nineteenth-century Tory statesman Sir Robert Peel, and one of the few strong supporters of Mrs Thatcher in the academic world. The other was Robert Conquest, the historian of Stalin’s purges and the forced Ukrainian famine, who died on August 3. He was more than a supporter of Mrs Thatcher; he was her informal but valued adviser on foreign policy.

If asked in advance which of my candidates would be chosen, I would have plumped firmly for Conquest. Both men were great historians, but Conquest had achieved an international reputation that had understandably eluded the more provincial Gash. In fact it was Gash who appeared in the next Honours List. He got a CBE. (It should have been a knighthood.)

Conquest got nothing. He carried on getting nothing—or nothing from Whitehall—for some time, though he continued advising Mrs Thatcher and though he attained a generally recognised eminence in several fields, notably literature, in addition to Soviet history.

From other countries, notably but not only the United States, the honours poured in. He was awarded the Commander Cross of Poland’s Order of Merit, Estonia’s Cross of Terra Mariana Order of Merit, and Ukraine’s Order of Yaroslav Mudry. From the United States he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 1993 he was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, which is the highest honour the US government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities.

Non-governmental bodies of distinction in Britain and abroad, some with Royal Patents, also showered their gifts upon Conquest. He was inducted as a Fellow into the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the Royal Society of Literature, whose Silver Medal he also received. Prizes and awards often followed these inductions. He was awarded the Richard Weaver Award for Scholarly Letters, the Michael Braude Award for Light Verse (from the American Academy of Arts and Letters), the Dan David Prize for service to the victims of communism, and the Fondazione Liberal Career Award. His mantelpiece was rarely without a card of invitation to some such event.

In addition to these formal marks of recognition, Conquest also enjoyed what became a triumphal tour of Russia after the 1991 coup, when former Soviet apparatchiks vied with dissidents for his signature on samizdat or newly published versions of his The Great Terror.

Still no news from Whitehall.

People began to notice. On my visits to London in the years after 1989, I found that those who follow such matters as the Honours List—more people than you might think—were to be heard saying, “Surely Conquest is in there this time?” or “He must have got a gong earlier without our noticing.”

In strict truth he had got a gong earlier—an OBE for his services to diplomacy when he left the Foreign Office as a comparatively young man in the mid-1950s. That’s a nice award, but it didn’t quite match up to the foreign decorations he had received or to his all-round eminence. And it was bestowed before almost any of the intellectual achievements that earned him that eminence.

Someone who did notice the silence of Whitehall was Robin (now Lord) Renwick, a former British ambassador to both South Africa and the United States, who under Margaret Thatcher played an important mediating role in bringing apartheid to a peaceful end. He thought it odd that Conquest had not been given a more suitable award and put a word in somebody’s ear in the right Whitehall place. In the 1996 Honours List Conquest finally got a CMG—or a Commander Cross of the Order of St Michael and St George. Now, that is a more suitable award because, among other things, it is the first step in the Order that traditionally goes to senior Foreign Office diplomats. The hierarchy goes as follows: CMG—Call me God; KCMG—Kindly Call me God; GCMG—God Calls me God.

Conquest was quietly pleased with this recognition. Being called God, even in a whisper, was good enough for him. And he was grateful to Renwick for smoothing the path to the CMG. But it didn’t quite satisfy his admirers in politics and the academy who thought that a knighthood or something higher would be more appropriate to his achievements. Their discontent was magnified two years later when Tony Blair’s Labour government made the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm a CH in the 1998 List.

Now, in the UK Honours List a CH is second only to the OM, the Order of Merit, in distinction. It stands for Companion of Honour and, like the OM, it is greatly prized even by those who affect to despise the entire honours system.

How appropriate a Companion of Honour was Eric Hobsbawm? His intellectual distinction as a historian, though disputed by some historians (notably Keith Windschuttle of this parish), is affirmed by others, not all of whom agreed with him on politics, such as Niall Ferguson. But intellectual distinction alone is not sufficient to merit a place in the ranks of honour. Hobsbawm was also, both as a historian and a citizen, an unrepentant supporter of Stalinism who, far from denying Soviet mass murder, mounted a sophistical justification of it.

In a well-known 1994 BBC television interview, four years before Hobsbawm was awarded the CH, Michael Ignatieff asked him: “So what that comes down to is saying that ‘Had the radiant tomorrow actually been created, the loss of fifteen, twenty, million, people might have been justified’?” And Hobsbawm replied: “Yes.”

He made similar remarks in this interview and elsewhere. And he justified them with specious arguments such as that when mass murder is universal, it is legitimate to support the form of it that seems most likely to produce a better world. But mass murder was not universal at the time of Stalin’s purges and the Ukraine famine. These preceded Hitler’s genocides by several years. Nor was mass murder a universal feature of life in the Western democracies at any point between, say, 1930 and today. Finally, as Hobsbawm admits, Soviet mass murder led not to a radiant tomorrow but to a ruined wasteland. That is something any prudent person, let alone any historian, should have realised was a very possible outcome and thus an absolute prohibition on murders committed from motives of historical optimism. In retrospect, moreover, a morally prudent Whitehall should have withheld the honour that most shouts honour from the historian who supported mass murder in the first place and justified doing so to the end.

Happily giving the CH to the historian who supported genocide while needing constant pressing reminders before offering a lesser honour to the historian who uncovered it provides an unpleasant insight into the mindset of Whitehall under all governments. To be sure, there are a number of possible reasons why official recognition of Conquest was so reluctant and so long delayed. The first rule of honours is that they go to those who desperately want them. Conquest never gave a damn about being Sir Robert (though he would have quite liked his wife to be Lady Conquest, if only for the verbal effect). And though others pulled what strings they could, that is rarely enough. I doubt, for instance, that he ever directly asked Mrs Thatcher for anything.

Also, Bob was a wonderfully raffish character as well as a fine poet and conscientious historian. He wrote technically brilliant but not-quite-proper limericks; he produced comic novels and science fiction; he played pranks from college onwards; he liked parties, champagne and girls. His life was devoted not only to truth but also to what Arnold Bennett called “the great cause of cheering us all up”. And that is a cause that will never appeal to the committees of cultural bureaucrats in charge of gongs.

All that said, the contrast between the official treatment of Conquest and Hobsbawm is too glaring to ignore or dismiss. What it reveals is a leftist political prejudice in Whitehall and the wider British establishment that is as undeniable as the Gulag. Or as one wag put it: anti-communism may die, but anti-anti-communism will live forever.

In the days after Conquest’s death, however, Whitehall was outdone in its silent hostility. In Putin’s Moscow, where he had been feted two decades ago, only one opposition newspaper marked Conquest’s death with a favourable obituary. Its author deserves a medal.

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