14 FEBRUARY 1970, Page 12


The last of the Grand Whigs


My first connection—and a very remote one —with the late Lord Russell took place in 1919 when I was one of the eighty students of Glasgow University who voted for him as Lord Rector. (In his autobiography he does not mention this campaign.) The majority of the students of that ancient university voted for Andrew Bonar Law, and the contrast in appearance, mental subtlety, and moral con- duct was striking enough to please an ironist. I can remember voting—there was no non- sense about secret balloting, and the return- ing officer at the desk where I voted was John Phillimore, Professor of Humanity—i.e. of Latin—a great friend of my father's. Philli- more approved of my and my brother's votes as he thought it was right that young men should be radical, and I suspect that he would have approved of anyone who voted against Andrew Bonar Law, since Bonar Law was a partner in infamy with Mr George.

At about the same time I began to read Russell's political works, and was entranced, not always by his arguments, but by his English. It was towards the end of his life that I suggested in another weekly journal that some of the letters and documents that Lord. Russell was supposed to have written must have been tampered with by another hand since he could not possibly have written the horrible American English in which they were couched. But it is possible that the elegance of Russell's writing diminished in the minds of the muddle-headed, the impact of his arguments. He was, it must have seemed to a great many simple-minded English philosophers and thinkers, too clever by half. Perhaps he was. In many ways he had a French mind which was revealed not only in the elegance of his writing, but in his black-and-white moral decisions based on passion as much as on reflection.

The Russells were of Gascon origin, but they had long lost the Gascon attitude to life exemplified in the two most famous

Gascons, Henri IV and the Marechal d'Artagnan. The Time's obituary suggests

that whereas Frank Russell, the second Earl Russell, was a Stanley, the third Earl Russell was very much a Russell, and as much as the Herveys, the Russells were a breed apart. It was (I think) of Lord John that Sydney Smith said he would have taken over command of

the Channel fleet or cut for the stone at ten minutes' notice; and there certainly was a basic peremptory way in the decision-making process in the case of the Prime Minister and of his even more celebrated grandson. But whether Bertrand Russell was more a Russell or more a Stanley is not perhaps so Im- portant, as that he was the last great orna- ment of what used to be called the 'Grand Whiggery'. He occasionally expressed scorn of titular honours and very seldom used his title, although he took his place in the House of Lords. Whenhe was living outside Oxford,

he was asked to lecture by the secretary of the relevant philosophical faculty, a great friend of mine, who asked. him whether he wished to be announced in the lecture list as Lord Russell or as Bertrand Russell. He replied that he wished to be announced as Bertrand Russell: no one would take very seriously a chemist's shop which had over the door 'Lord Trent, Cash Chemist'. But if he was not particularly impressed by being an earl, he was impressed by being a Russell, and I suspect he would have liked to be Duke of Bedford.

He came only slowly to adopt the Socialist position, and he was in fact a fairly orthodox Asquithian Liberal until the outbreak of the first world war. By that time he had estab- lished his position in the world of philo- sophy. He had moved away from his early philosophical loyalties and with Whitehead had produced the vast and impressive work Principia Mathematica (a work which I hasten to say I do not know even by sight).

One of the most interesting revelations of his Autobiography is his discussion of his collaboration with Whitehead. In many ways they were very unlike. We learn from Russell that Whitehead thought of becoming a Catholic, a prospect that must have filled Russell with horror. On the other hand, some of the behaviour of Russell upset Whitehead, although it was possibly only a mild irrita- tion at the amount of scandal that his col- league had caused. I can remember at one of Whitehead's famous Sunday evening parties in Cambridge (Mass.) Whitehead's suddenly saying, 'Bertie is a scoundrel'. He did not mean this seriously, but it had some meaning for Whitehead at any rate.

With that candid self-examination which was one of Russell's charms he came to be- lieve that he had wasted a great deal of time on a fruitless enterprise, but whether this was a wise self-adjustment it is not for me to say : this is a world in which I am totally lost, and perhaps Whitehead was not either as original a mathematician or as original a philosopher as was Russell. (I can remember asking a very eminent American mathemati- cian who had spent a year at Oxford as visit- ing professor what he thought of the mathe- matical talents of my friend Henry White- head, a nephew of A.N. 'Is he as good a mathematician as his uncle?' His uncle? that old fraud!' It is obvious from this indi- cation that a barely numerate character like myself had better keep out of the quarrels of mathematicians!)

Russell's later career to some extent hid his intellectual eminence. But being by birth a member of the greatest of the 'Great Revo- lution Families' he was bound to detest what the Greeks would have called idiocy and so committed himself to a great many causes, most of them, but not all of them, worthy. Yet he was very far from being a Hampstead Liberal or a Hampstead Socialist. For example, he was one of the first people on the left to have very grave doubts indeed about the character of the Soviet government. But his account of the Soviet Union in its early formative years can still be re-read, unlike the stupid nonsense produced by the Webbs or the plainly mendacious nonsense produced by Bernard Shaw. In the quality of his judg- ment, one can see the advantages he had from coming from a great aristocratic family. Shaw and the Webbs took very seriously their experience in bodies like the Saint Pancras Vestry or the London County Council. Rus- sell knew the arcana imperil in a way that most of the Fabians knew nothing of. After all, his, grandfather, Lord Jolla, had ridden along the lines of TorresVedra's with Wel-

lington and had interviewed Napoleon in Elba. This did not necessarily make 'Finality Jack' a wise man, but it did make his judg- ment, for good or bad, rather more worthy of attention than that of 'the stage army of the good' who formed the nucleus of the Fabian Society.

• In some ways, Russell was never forgiven for blowing the gaff on Soviet communism I was for a time the senior member of a Cambridge discussion society whose name I have managed to forget, and I succeeded in inducing Russell to come down to Cambridge to give the first address to the bright, intel- ligent, mostly left-wing young men who joined this society (which was officially free from any party affiliations). Needless to say, it was joined by members of the Party carry- ing out their priest-like task of boring from within. Alas for the doctrinaire young men! Lord Russell sent them up with great skill. Rushing ahead with ill-digested doctrine, they were easily gored by the great dialectical bull. Perhaps they didn't know what had hit them, but they knew they had been hit. The society died shortly afterwards.

It was very dangerous indeed to get into a controversy with Russell, not because he was a disingenuous controversialist, but because he was so much cleverer than most other people and had the great controversial asset of seeing where passion or mere ignorance would lead his opponents and leave them sprawling. I can remember watching a tele- vision programme in America in which the three performers were Russell, an eminent Indian physicist, and a very eminent American physicist and Nobel prizeman. The American, who was defending the official atomic policy of the United States govern- ment, announced proudly that the Atomic Energy Commission was about to produce, or had produced, a clean bomb : that is to say, one that would not sterilise tens of thousands of square miles for perhaps a thousand years. Russell blandly asked the American, 'Of course in that case you will send the recipe for the clean bomb to Mos- cow?' The American looked completely baffled, and said, `Why?' Surely it is to your interest to have clean bombs dropped on you which will allow most of the United States

to be habitable even if the Russians do drop atomic bombs on you?' The American thought, and said 'Why?' again. Russell re- peated his remark. The American continued to be completely baffled. The Indian had the greatest difficulty in controlling his mirth, and so, indeed, had the Tv audience. I have been assured by Cambridge colleagues whose opinion I respect that this American physi- cist, outside his speciality, was quite remark- ably stupid.

Russell had an astonishing talent for in- teresting people even in philosophical discus- sions which suggested a French rather than an English approach to very high vulgarisa- tion. I can remember going on an American journey with a friend of mine, a former mem- ber of Russell's own college, travelling south in an incredibly hot summer in a train (we were travelling hard) that might have sur-

vived Sherman's invasion of South Carolina. My friend was reading, with great excite- ment, Our Knowledge of the External World

and kept on badgering me with questions about the argument. It was about 110 degrees and very humid indeed. At last I had to pro- test that I did not want to discuss theories of knowledge, etc., in this tempera- ture. (This passion for philosophical discus- sion which he had got from Russell did not prevent him later from becoming a director of the Bank of England.) In his old age, Russell produced his very remarkable autobiography. Naturally enough, reviewers and readers tended to con- centrate on the candid sexual revelations, but there were many more interesting things in the autobiography than that. For example, there was the unkind account of Cambridge mathematics whose deficiencies Russell dis- covered at Harvard. There was also a good deal of rather unkind irony or candour. A great many women must have been annoyed to learn that he had taken special pleasure in making love to Lady Ottoline Morrell, 'a woman of his own class'. It was perhaps a rather cruel way to brush off many other women who were not of his own class. It is perhaps revealing that after what seems a preposterously foolish plan of getting in touch with the English working classes through D. H. Lawrence, Lord Russell abandoned this very unrepresentative English working man, and it is also revealing that the author in English' he admired most was

Joseph Conrad. It is true that the Schlachta to which Conrad belonged was very unlike and very inferior to the Grand Whiggery, but Russell and Conrad had in common an aristocratic attitude to life, optimistic in the case of the Englishman, pessimistic in the case of the Pole. Russell had very little in common with either Lawrence or Wells, or the Hampstead reformers. (He named one of his sons Conrad after Joseph Conrad.)

Basically Russell was animated by noble passions which can be rightly described as religious if atheistic. A Jesuit philosopher, Father Peter Hebblewhite, writing in the

Catholic Herald of 6 February, pays tribute to Russell's noble inconsistency, for against

his own philosophical principles he was pas- sionately devoted to causes which could be defended only on subjective grounds. Father Hebblewhite suggests that Russell had under- gone a kind of Pauline conversion to an ethical view of the world and of duty. And indeed, since it is now fashionable to sneer at the Whigs and is certainly easy to be mad- dened by their moral complacency, there was

a great deal to be said for the Grand Whiggery. And if Lord Russell OM, FRS, was the last. of the great Whigs, they ended in glory.