DLT: Conrad Russell – 1937–2004

Duncan Brack and Ed Randall, authors of the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, have kindly agreed to let us publish extracts on Lib Dem Voice. Last month, the Institute of Economic Affairs; this month Henry David Thoreau. The entire book is available on Amazon here and can also be bought at the Westminster Bookshop.

Conrad Russell was an academic and Liberal Democrat peer who helped to define and assert the Liberal Democrats’ philosophical and historical roots after the merger of the Liberal Party and SDP.

Key ideas

  • Liberalism as a philosophy is primarily concerned with the use and dispersal of power.
  • Defence of rights of the individual, particularly those who do not fit neatly into government-prescribed categories.

Biography
Conrad Sebastian Robert Russell was born on 15 April 1937, the son of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the great-grandson of the Liberal Prime Minister Lord John Russell (q.v.). Educated at Eton and Oxford, he pursued an academic career of some distinction at three colleges of London University (Bedford, University and King’s), interspersed with five years at Yale; from 1990 to 2003 he was Professor of History at King’s. He wrote particularly on the struggle between Parliament and the monarchy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, his most influential work being The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637–1642 (1991). A leading revisionist on the English Civil War, he aimed to refute the conventional view that the clash was the outcome of long-term constitutional conflicts between King and Parliament, arguing instead that it had more to do with immediate causes, mainly the English attitude to Charles I’s attempt to enforce observance of the Prayer Book in Scotland and the ensuing revolt.

In 1987, he became the fifth Earl Russell, succeeding his half-brother, and began his unlikely progress towards the status of radical hero to his own party. The mixture of freedom fighter, modern politician and traditionally schooled intellectual was unusual and potent. He had a careful, precise way of speaking, using humour and soundbite to great effect to help him deliver immensely popular speeches, at party conference and in the House of Lords alike. He fully exploited his persona of eccentric academic, and used the past as a window on the present and the future, peppering his speeches with historical allegories, many drawn from the seventeenth century.

Russell took up a wide range of causes, including, most notably, constitutional affairs, education, social security, refugees and asylum. He consistently attacked government’s assumption that it knows best what is good for the citizen – as he put it, the belief ‘that the state’s judgment takes priority over that of the people concerned’. He was particularly critical of official attitudes towards those who did not fit easily into the stereotypes promulgated by government bureaucracies. He was also active in drawing attention to seemingly unimportant secondary legislation; his efforts led directly to the establishment of the House of Lords Delegated Powers Scrutiny Committee and the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee.

It was no surprise that when the Labour government abolished the rights of hereditary peers to vote in 1999 he was elected as one of the ninety-two who survived the cull. He played an active part in Liberal Democrat policy-making, was a frequent speaker in conference debates and fringe meetings, and wrote a popular column for the party newspaper. He enjoyed associating himself with the more radical and anti-establishment elements of the party.
In 1962, he married Elizabeth Sanders, one of his students, and they had two sons. His life-long addiction to cigarettes finally caught up with him, and he died of complications from emphysema on 14 October 2004.

Ideas
Russell’s political speeches and writings were informed by a deep and scholarly understanding of British politics. His main political work, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism, is a typical Russell product, a concise and beautifully written text. In it he argued that modern liberalism was the inheritor of a long and continuous tradition, concerned primarily with the use of power. He traced this back to seventeenth-century conflicts over church power, and to Whig opposition to Stuart absolutism and to the exercise of hereditary power in the absence of consent. The Glorious Revolution of 1688 committed the Whigs (q.v.) to the ‘ascending theory’ of power, in which power came up from the people, who conferred it – or not, as the case may be – on government. Liberal achievements in curbing executive power and patronage, including the steady widening of the franchise throughout the nineteenth century, stemmed from this basic approach. The Gladstonian (q.v.) commitment to retrenchment, superficially so different to the following century’s New Liberal (q.v.) belief in public spending for social ends, derived in practice from the desire to limit expenditure on the armed forces, police and the diplomatic service, then the main areas of state spending, which primarily benefited the upper classes; it was another means of constraining executive power.

Along with the control of power went its dispersal, which Russell linked to the promotion of diversity – religious, social, geographical and cultural – to form pluralism. Again there were strong historical roots: the Whig rejection of the Tory view of church and state as coterminous, Gladstone’s acceptance of the United Kingdom as a country of several nations, and the long-held belief in the autonomy of local government. The liberal commitment to equality (q.v.) derived from this belief in a diverse and tolerant society. Such a society could not exist where individuals were treated differently by the law and by government institutions because of their nature. ‘Equality before the law’ was one of the great rallying cries of liberalism from the earliest days of the Whigs; ‘equal justice’, ‘non-discrimination’ and ‘concern for the underdog’ were just as valid ways of expressing it.

This concern over the use and dispersal of power provided the principles on which all areas of liberal policy were based. This included international issues, where liberals sought the creation of a strong framework of international law, wherein every country, no matter how small and weak, could enjoy the same rights to equal treatment as its larger and more powerful neighbours. And it applied to economic policy, though since liberalism had such deep roots, going back before the state could exert any significant control over the levers of economic activity, Russell argued that the party did not have an economic philosophy. Economics was important principally because it affected the distribution of power in society and could thereby enlarge, or diminish, the life chances of individuals. Liberals opposed concentrations of economic power as they did of political power, and for the same reasons.

Russell was not a particularly original political thinker, but his writings and speeches were important in helping to assert the Liberal Democrats’ historical and philosophical roots in the period after merger. He helped to make the party feel good about itself.

Key works

  • The Crisis of Parliaments: English History 1509–1660 (1971)
  • The Causes of the English Civil War (1990)
  • The Fall of the British Monarchies 1637–1642 (1991)
  • An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Liberalism (1999)

Further reading

  • ‘Liberalism and Liberty from Gladstone to Ashdown: Continuous Thread or Winding Stair?’ (Journal of Liberal Democrat History 20, Autumn 1998)

Duncan Brack

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is one of the many titles available from the Liberal Democrat History Group. Find out more about them on their website.

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3 Comments

  • “…this month Henry David Thoreau”

    ?

  • Mike Falchikov 23rd Jul '08 - 10:02am

    I was a huge fan of Conrad Russell – his
    “Intelligent person’s guide…” was a source of both inspiration and confirmation that one’s liberal instincts were the right
    ones. I didn’t know him personally (though we overlapped briefly at University where he was not an active Liberal)but I miss hi s wise and witty comments enormously.

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